The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis of The Physician's Tale

The Physician's Tale

As Titus Livius tells us, there was once a knight called Virginius who had many friends, much wealth, and a loving wife and daughter. The daughter possessed a beauty so great that even Pygmalion could not have created her equal. She was also humble in speech and avoided events which might compromise her virtue. The narrator then breaks off to address governesses and parents, telling them to bring up their children to be virtuous.

The maid one day went into the town, toward a temple, with her mother, where a judge who governed the town, saw the knight's daughter, and lusted after her. He was so caught by the maid’s beauty that he concluded “This mayde shal be myn”. At that, the devil ran into his heart, and taught him how he, by trickery, could have the maid for his own. He sent after a churl, who he knew was clever and brave, and told him the plan, giving him precious, expensive gifts for his complicity.

The judge’s name was Appius, the narrator now tells us, before asserting “So was his name, for this is no fable”, but a “historial thyng notable” (a notable historical event). The false churl, Claudius, made a complaint against Virginius, and the judge summoned him to hear the charge against him. Claudius, in short, claimed that Virginius was holding one of his servants, a beautiful young girl, against his will, and pretending she was his daughter. The judge did not listen to Virginius’ argument in his own defense, but ordered that the girl be taken as a ward of the court.

Virginius returned home, and called his daughter, with an ashen face. He explained to her that now there were only two avenues open to her: either death or shame. Virginius decided, in a long, mournful speech to his daughter, to kill her, and, although she begged for mercy and another solution, eventually she asked for a little leisure to contemplate her death. She then fell into a swoon, and when she awoke, she blessed God that she could die a virgin. Virginius then took his sword and cut off her head, and took it to the judge.

When the judge saw the head, he tried to escape and hang himself, but soon a thousand people thrust in, knowing of the false iniquity, took Appius and threw him into prison. Claudius was sentenced to be hanged upon a tree – except that Virginius pleaded on his behalf, succeeding in reducing the sentence to exile.

Here, the narrator says, may men see that sin has no reward – even if it is so private that no-one knows of it other than God and the sinner. The last counsel the tale presents us with: “Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” (abandon sin, before sin abandons [destroys] you).


After the Physician’s Tale has finished, in the prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale, the Host claims that he has almost “caught a cardynacle” – almost had a heart attack, and it is not difficult to see why. This is a tale which takes no prisoners: with no prologue to ease us in, this brutal, harsh, violent and uncompromising tale refuses to be read as a fable (“this is no fable”) or allegory, but insists that we view its cruel and unpleasant events as things which happen in the real world. One rather wonders why the Physician thinks it will win him the prize at the end of the tale-telling.

Moreover, the tale rushes towards its unpleasant conclusion, even at the expense of plausibility. Why doesn’t Virginius try to argue with the judge, or call upon the mob of thousand people who, only a little later, burst through the doors to deliver justice? Why doesn’t Virginius hide his daughter, or jump on his knightly steed and escape to another land? Again, as in the Knight’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, there seems to be some interrogation of ideas of chivalry: this is a man who, without any need for reflection, would rather preserve his daughter’s nobility and honor than keep her alive. Chaucer again casts a negative light across the codes of honor to which men adhere.

Critics have not devoted much attention to the tale, except to say that it provides, perhaps, the first significant “death’s head” in the Canterbury Tales: what hitherto has been a fun, “game”-some party, a well-meaning competition, despite its squabbles, is suddenly presented with a tale entirely without good-naturedness or comedy. It is the beginning of a turn toward darkness which entirely changes the tone and tenor of the Tales as a whole, and – although in its criticism of hypocrisy, defense of religion and beauty, and painful, final justice, it has much in common thematically with some of the other tales – it is a tale which seems decidedly set apart from its predecessors.