Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Physician

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

The Physician tells a story from an ancient Roman named Virginius and his daughter Virginia. Chaucer is retelling here an episode from Roman history, although the names have become somewhat confused. In Roman history, it was "Appius Claudius" who was the villain, but in Chaucer, "Appius" appears as one character and "Claudius" as another. The basic outline of the story, however, is very similar to what is found in the Roman writers. The Physician begins by describing Virginia's physical beauty (Mother Nature gives a long speech about how beautifully she made Virginia), and then he talks about Virginia's moral qualities, urging parents and governesses to keep an eye on the young women in their charge, because they need to be carefully guarded.

There was, as tells us Titus Livius,
A knight whose name was called Virginius,
Fulfilled of honour and of worthiness,
Who many friends and much wealth did possess.
This knight had had a daughter by his wife,
Nor children more had he in all his life.

Fair was this maid, in excellent beauty
Above all others that a man may see;
For Nature had, with sovereign diligence,
Moulded her to so great an excellence
She seemed to say: "Behold now, I, Nature,
Thus can I form and paint a creature pure
When I desire. Who can it counterfeit?
Pygmalion? Nay, not though he forge and beat,
Or curve, or paint; and I dare say again,
Apelles, Zeuxis too, should work in vain,
Either to carve or paint, or forge or beat,
If they presumed my work to counterfeit.
For He Who is Creator Principal
Has made of me His Vicar General
To form and colour earthly creatures all,
Just as I like, for they're mine, great and small
Under the moon, the which may wax and wane;
And for my work I ask no payment vain;
My Lord and I are of one sole accord;
I made her in the worship of my Lord.
So do I other fair or foul creatures,
What colours though they have, or what figures."
It seems to me that Nature thus would say.

This maid was fourteen years of age, this may
In whom Dame Nature had so great delight.
For just as she can paint a lily white
Or redden rose, even with such a stroke
She did this creature by her art evoke
Ere she was born, painting her sweet limbs free
In such true colours as they'd come to be;
And Phoebus dyed her long hair with such gold
As have his burning streamers manifold.
But if right excellent was her beauty,
A thousand-fold more virtuous was she.
In her there lacked not one condition known
That's praiseworthy when by discretion shown.
As well in soul as body chaste was she;
For which she flowered in virginity
With all humility and abstinence,
And with all temperance and with patience,
And with a modest bearing and array.
Discreet in her replies she was alway;
Though she was wise as Pallas, and not vain,
Her speech was always womanly and plain,
No highfalutin pretty words had she
To ape deep knowledge; after her degree
She spoke, and all her words, greater and less,
Tended to virtue and to gentleness.
Modest she was, with maiden bashfulness,
Constant of heart, and full of busyness
To keep her from all idle sluggardry.
Bacchus had of her mouth no mastery;
For wine and youth help Venus to increase,
As when on fire is scattered oil or grease.
And of her virtue, free and unconstrained,
She had ofttimes some little illness feigned
In order to avoid a company
Which likely was to do some great folly,
As people do at revels and at dances,
Which are occasions when young folk take chances.
Such things but make young men and maidens be
Too ripe and bold, as everyone may see,
Which is right dangerous, as 'twas of yore.
For all too soon a virgin learns the lore
Of wantonness when she becomes a wife.

You governesses, who in older life
Have great lords' daughters in your governance,
Take from my words no foolish petulance;
Remember you've been set to governings
Of lords' daughters for but one of two things:
Either that you have kept your honesty,
Or else that you've succumbed to your frailty,
And having learned the measures of love's dance,
Have now forsaken such ways of mischance
For evermore; therefore, for Jesus' sake,
See that you teach them virtue, nor mistake.
A poacher of the deer, who has reformed,
Left wicked ways and been by goodness warmed,
Can guard a forest best of any man.
So guard them well, for if you will you can;
Look that to no vice do you give assent,
Lest you be damned for your so vile intent;
For who does thus is traitor, that's certain.
And take good care that I speak not in vain;
Of treacheries all, the sovereign pestilence
Is when adults betray young innocence.

You fathers and you mothers fond, also,
If you have children, be it one or two,
Yours is the burden of their wise guidance
The while they are within your governance.
Beware that not from your own lax living,
Or by your negligence in chastening
They fall and perish; for I dare well say,
If that should chance you'll dearly have to pay.
Under a shepherd soft and negligent
Full many a sheep and lamb by wolf is rent.
Suffice one instance, as I give it here,
For I must in my story persevere.

This maid, of whom I do this praise express,
Guarded herself, nor needed governess;
For in her daily life all maids might read,
As in a book, every good word or deed
That might become a maiden virtuous;
She was so prudent and so bounteous.
From all this grew the fame on every side
Of both her beauty and her goodness wide;
Throughout that land they praised her, every one
That virtue loved; and Envy stood alone,
That sorry is when others live in weal
And for their woe will ever gladness feel.
(Doctor Augustine's are these words, I own).

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what were some of Virginia's physical features?
  • what kind of personality did Virginia have?
  • what kind of reputation did Virginia have?

Source: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Modern English translation (name of translator not given). Website: Litrix Reading Room

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM