Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Physician, cont.

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Virginius decided to kill her rather than hand her over, and when Virginia hears this news, she compares herself to Jephtha's daughter, who was also killed by her own father (Book of Judges, Bible).

And when this noble knight Virginius,
By judgment of this Justice Appius,
Must now, perforce, his darling daughter give
Unto the judge, in lechery to live,
He did go home and sat down in his hall,
And gave command his daughter there to call;
And, with a face dead white and ashen cold,
Her modest mien his eyes did then behold,
With father's pity striking through his heart,
Though from his purpose he would not depart.

"Daughter," said he, "Virginia by your name,
There are two ways, for either death or shame
You now must suffer. Ah, that I was born!
For you have not deserved to be thus lorn,
To die by means of sword or any knife.
O my dear daughter, ender of my life,
Whom I have bred up with so deep pleasance
That you were never from my remembrance!
O daughter who are now my final woe,
Aye, and in life my final joy also,
O gem of chastity, in brave patience
Receive your death, for that is my sentence.
For love and not for hate you must be dead;
My pitying hand must strike your innocent head.
Alas! That ever Appius saw you! Nay,
Thus has he falsely judged of you today."-
And told her all the case, as you before
Have heard; there is no need to tell it more.

"O mercy, my dear father," said this maid,
And with that word both of her arms she laid
About his neck, as she was wont to do;
Then broke the bitter tears from her eyes two.
She said: "O my good father, must I die?
Is there no grace? Is there no remedy?"

"No, truly, darling daughter mine," said he.

"Then give me leisure, father mine," quoth she,
"But to lament my death a little space;
For even Jephtha gave his daughter grace
To weep a little ere he slew, alas!
And God knows that in naught did she trespass,
Save that she ran to be the first to see
And welcome him with greetings, merrily."

And with that word she fell into a swoon,
And after, when the faint was past and gone,
She rose up and unto her father said:
"Praise be to God that I shall die a maid.
Give me my death before I come to shame;
Do with your child your will, and in God's name!"
And then she prayed him, as he was expert,
He'd strike her swiftly, lest the blow should hurt,
Whereon again a-swooning down she fell.

Her father, with a heavy heart and will,
Struck off her head, and bore it by the hair
Straight to the judge and did present it there
While yet he sat on bench in auditory.
And when the judge saw this, so says the story,
He bade them take him out and swiftly hang.

But then a thousand people rose and sprang
To save the knight, for ruth and for pity,
For known was now the false iniquity.
The people had suspected some such thing,
By the churl's manner in his challenging,
That it was done to please this Appius;
They knew right well that he was lecherous.
Wherefore they ran this Appius upon
And cast him into prison cell anon,
Wherein he slew himself; and Claudius,
Who had been creature of this Appius,
Was sentenced to be hanged upon a tree;
But then Virginius, of his great pity,
So pleaded for him that he was exiled,
For, after all, the judge had him beguiled.

The rest were hanged, the greater and the less,
Who had been parties to this wickedness.

Here may men see how sin has its desert!
Beware, for no man knows whom God will hurt,
Nor how profoundly, no, nor in what wise
The hidden worm of conscience terrifies
The wicked soul, though secret its deeds be
And no one knows thereof but God and he.
For be he ignorant or learned, yet
He cannot know when fear will make him sweat
Therefore I counsel you, this counsel take:
Forsake your sin ere sin shall you forsake.

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

  • what happened to Virginia? what about her father?
  • what became of Appius and of Claudius?
  • according to the Physician, what is the moral of the story?

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