The Physician's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

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  • 0:04 The Physician
  • 0:58 The Physician's Tale
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

The Physician's Tale is one of the shortest of 'The Canterbury Tales,' but it reveals a great deal about the importance of honor and virginity during the Middle Ages. In this lesson, we'll learn about the Physician and summarize his tale.

The Physician

Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is an incomplete work, and unlike most of the other tales, The Physician's Tale doesn't have its own prologue. However, we do learn about the Physician in the General Prologue to the tales. Like the Franklin, whose tale precedes his, the Physician is a member of the medieval middle class. He is a doctor and surgeon of unparalleled skill and, according to the state of science at the time, uses astrology and natural medicine to care for his patients. He has connections with many apothecaries, who help him obtain the medicines he needs, and both he and they make a good profit.

In terms of his non-professional life, the Physician is described as being knowledgeable about major historical figures who have influenced the field of medicine. However, Chaucer notes, he doesn't know much about the Bible. The Physician is wealthy and well-dressed, yet careful in how he spends his money. He also keeps a sensible, healthy diet, as you'd expect from any good doctor.

The Physician's Tale

The Physician's Tale is about a knight named Virginius and his daughter, Virginia. Virginia is beautiful, with golden hair, and has excellent moral character. Throughout the medieval period and others in history, virginity was highly valued among young, unmarried women. In fact, losing virginity before marriage for any reason meant disaster for the reputation of a young lady. The choice of names for the father and daughter in ''The Physician's Tale'' are obvious signs of the importance of this fact in the story.

As the Physician explains, Virginia is virtuous not only because she is a virgin, but also because she is modest, sweet-tempered, and avoids wild parties involving alcohol. His tale also includes a side commentary urging governesses (women employed as tutors and guardians) to do everything they can to preserve the virtue of such young ladies. Because of her beauty and chaste character, Virginia soon becomes famous.

One day as Virginia goes into the temple with her mother, she is noticed by the region's judge, Appius, who immediately begins to lust for her. Knowing that she is too wise and good to be seduced, he devises a plan. He pays a ''wicked churl'' named Claudius to appear in court claiming that Virginia is his own servant, and that Virginius has stolen her. The knight tries to explain that this is a lie, but of course Appius won't listen or allow him to continue. He rules that the knight must turn Virginia over to Claudius, presumably so that Claudius can then bring him Virginia in secret.

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