Joshua J. Stigall notes that because Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale is generally considered the least interesting tale in the Canterbury Tales it has not received critical engagement on the scale that other tales, like the Wife of Bath and the Knight, have received. Moreover, when the tale is discussed, Chaucer’s characterization of the Physician in the General Prologuedoes not play a prominent role in the interpretation of his tale. This article explores both how Chaucer’s characterization of the Physician in the General Prologue and the Physician’s misinterpretation of his sources shows him as one whose story is suspect. Mr. Stigall is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Sheila Delany sums up the general opinion of the Physician’s Tale when she writes,

The Physician’s Tale is generally conceded to be one of Chaucer’s least interesting and least successful efforts: flat characters, a rather incompetent narrative flawed by irrelevant digressions, a plot exceedingly improbable and . . . without redeeming symbolic depth.1

Sandra Pierson Prior takes the critique a step further, arguing that the Physician’s Tale “is, by virtually any critical judgment, a badly told story: inconsistent in tone, inept in story line, incoherent in sentence, and devoid of solaas.”2 Sentiments like these have led to a neglect of the tale and a lack of critical engagement with its story in comparison to other tales like those of the Wife of Bath and the Knight.

If critics like Prior are correct in their judgment of the tale, what is the value of the Physician’s Tale to the overall narrative of the Canterbury Tales and to Chaucer’s critique of his society in general? Some have focused on the political imagery in the tale, suggesting that Chaucer is warning his audience about the dangers of juridical and/or governmental abuse.3 Others have read the story allegorically, focusing on issues like the value placed on virginity in the tale.4 In these attempts to identify the contribution of the Physician’s Tale, the arguments put forth often neglect the characterization of the Physician in the General Prologue to the tales. In particular, the Physician’s “litel studie” of the Bible is most often not given the attention it deserves. In this essay, the description of the Physician in the prologue will guide the understanding of the tale he tells.5 Throughout the Canterbury Tales Chaucer identifies those characters who are trustworthy and those who are suspect, often by means of the storyteller’s ability to represent his/her sources accurately and that person’s ability to apply the sources appropriately. I argue that Chaucer characterizes the Physician as one whose story is suspect, illustrating the Physician’s lack of spiritual insight. This characterization is accomplished both by the Physician’s mishandling of his sources and by Chaucer’s description of the Physician when read in light of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Physician in the General Prologue

An issue neglected by many scholars in discussion of the Physician’s Tale is its relation to the Physician’s description in the General Prologue.6 It can seem as if the tale told by the Physician is completely detached from the character introduced earlier at the beginning of Chaucer’s work. This has led to several straightforward readings of the Physician’s Tale in which he is presented as a reliable guide in matters like grace, purity, and the importance of virginity.7

Despite the general neglect of relating the Physician’s character to his tale, there has been considerable discussion of the characterization of the Physician in the General Prologue. Some of the descriptions of the Physician have been the result of very creative thinking. For example, Dolores Cullen has taken pains to identify each member of the pilgrimage with a certain astrological sign.8 In her understanding, the Physician should be identified with Saturn who, according to Bernard Silvestris, was “savagely inclined to harsh and bloody acts of unfeeling and detestable malice.”10

A more helpful work is that of Edwin Eleazar,11 who attempts to situate the Physician in his social context before executing judgment on his character in the Prologue. Eleazar, recognizing the apparent ambiguity in the description of the Physician, enters into a discussion of the preparation and practice of medicine in the Middle Ages. This training would have been informed by various Greek, Roman, and Arabian traditions, as evidenced in the description of the Physician in the General Prologue. Eleazar also highlights the religious nature of medical training. Prior to the thirteenth century, most people practicing medicine were members of religious orders, although secular clerics were involved as well. By the end of the fourteenth century “the vast majority of men studying medicine in medieval universities were clerics.”The study of medicine, however, was discouraged at Oxford and Cambridge because of fear that “such study led to the development of materialistic/atheistic thinking.”12

Eleazar’s article on the practice of medicine in the Middle Ages illuminates two interrelated issues that can help us interpret the Physician’s description in the General Prologue. First, the Physician was most likely trained in an environment that was dominated by clerics. Thus, he was immersed in a setting where theological concerns were important. Second, there was the danger, recognized by the University faculty, that the study of medicine could lead to atheism and materialism. With these two issues in mind, we can now turn to the description of the Physician in the General Prologue.13 On first glance, this seems to be a glowing declaration of the Physician’s skills. Huling Ussery, for example, understands the comment to mean, “In all the world there was none his equal, with respect to [practitioners of] phisik and surgery.”14 This opening praise of the Physician is based on his “grounding in astronomye” (I.414). Ussery notes that for a doctor in the Middle Ages, astronomy was “a highly necessary and desirable skill in the healing arts.”15 Thus, the Physician is shown to be a master of his craft, able to diagnose his patients of “everich maladye” (I.419) because of his familiarity with the astrological signs of his patients (I.417-418) and the four “humours” (I.421).

The initial praise of the Physician is not, however, absolute. Cullen has noted the potential ambiguity in the statement “He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel / In houres by his magyk natureel” (I.415-416). She argues that the comment alludes to the Physician’s practice of keeping his patient “in distress” rather than “protecting” his patient as a doctor should.16 This judgment may be supported by the following lines:

Ful redy hadde he is apothecaries
To sende hym drogges and his letuaries
For ech of hem made oother for to wynne—
Hir friendship was not newe to bigynne (I.425-428)

On the surface this description of the Physician’s readiness to provide medicine for his patients through his connections with apothecaries could be seen as praise of his medical care. Upon closer examination, however, there seems to be more than a hint of exploitation in these words. As Muriel Bowden notes: “One of the most talked about abuses in Chaucer’s time was the collusion between physician and apothecary whereby the ‘sike man’ was mulcted of his money through heavy charges for prescriptions which cost little to compound.”17 In fact, Chaucer’s friend John Gower writes of a physician and his apothecary “friend” who overcharge a patient and split the surplus.18 In this light, the description of the longstanding relationship between the Physician and his apothecary friends may not be innocuous.

The Physician’s questionable moral authority is further evident in a line that is often discussed, but not fully appreciated, in discussions of the Physician: “His studie was but litel on the Bible” (I.438). Richard Hoffman characterizes the discussion of the phrase in this way:

It has become customary merely to point out the “implication of irreligion” in this line; to gloss it with some such proverb as, “Where there are three doctors, there are two atheists”; and then to dismiss it with the observation that doctors, perhaps in every age, have inclined to skepticism.19

The interpretation suggested by Hoffman does not seem to have changed much in the past 40 years.

It does not seem, however, that such a benign reading of the line captures the importance of the description for at least two reasons. First, the Scriptures were held in high regard by Chaucer’s contemporaries. As Lawrence Besserman writes,

For most of Chaucer’s English contemporaries—men and women, members of the religious establishment and secular people, commoners and aristocrats—the Bible was presumed to be the preeminent authority on all matters of human endeavor and concern.20

Thus, a person whose “studie was but litel on the Bible” would have been viewed neither positively nor as trustworthy.21 This distrust would have been especially acute with regard to someone like the Physician who was supposed to be concerned with matters of faith as a result of his training.

Second, it is important that Chaucer’s exemplary characters are those who properly handle the Scriptures. The story of the pilgrimage as a whole illustrates that Chaucer often uses the misreading of Scripture as a marker of untrustworthiness in his characters (for example, the Wife of Bath) and the correct reading of Scripture as a sign of reliability (for example, the Parson).22 This rhetorical device was most important with those who, like the Physician, were supposed to understand the Scriptures. While it is too much to say that the Physician did not know the Scriptures at all, it is not an unreasonable conjecture that his limited study could lead to misunderstanding and misapplication.

The Physician’s Tale: The Misreading and Misapplication of Sources

The Physician’s failure to understand his sources correctly is evident first in his use of Scripture. At least twice in the tale, the Physician shows a lack of understanding of his biblical sources.23 For example, the Physician encourages parents to avoid “necligence in chastisynge” (VI.98), and warns them that “Under a shepherde softe and necligent / The wolf hath many a sheep and lamb torrent” (VI.101-102). The allusion to the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is difficult to miss. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.But the hireling and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep and flieth: and the wolf casteth and scattereth the sheep,And the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling: and he hath no care for the sheep. (John 10:11-13)24

It is also difficult to miss the misreading of the biblical account of the nature of the Good Shepherd:

Come to me all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: And you shall find rest to your souls.For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

John Wycliffe, whose English translation of the New Testament was contemporary with The Canterbury Tales, translates Matthew 11:30, “For my yok is softe, and my charge liyt.”25 If the Physician were a trustworthy interpreter, he would know that a “shepherde softe” is fully capable of protecting the sheep from the wolves.

The remainder of the introduction to the Physician in the General Prologue casts further doubt on the character of the Physician, particularly in terms of his application of Scripture. The Physician may not have been a responsible interpreter of Scripture, but he certainly remains concerned for his material well-being:

In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al,
Lyned with taffeta and with sandal
And yet he was but esy of dispence;
He kepte what he wan in pestilence.
For gold in phisik is cordial,
Therefore he lovede gold in special (I.439-444)

Here we have a picture of a Physician who enjoyed the trappings of a successful career in medicine. He is dressed in silk-lined red and blue garments that display his position of prominence. Ussery argues that such dress was “not especially significant” but that his clothing was “appropriate to his status and occupation” and may have been “the gift of some noble.”26 Despite this attempt to defend the Physician,27 it seems that the rest of the description of the Physician’s stinginess (“esy dispence”) and his preoccupation with gold (“he lovede gold in special”) point to his worldliness.28

he Physician is skilled in his craft, but this skill in healing the body is not necessarily linked with a great concern for the soul. In fact, the Physician seems to be motivated by the collection and display of wealth. This disposition toward material goods stands in stark contrast to the biblical ideal of storing up “treasures in heaven” expressed most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.29 Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says:

Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through, and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

In these words of Jesus there is a distinction between transitory and eternal goods. On the one hand, if one places hope in worldly goods, one is relying on goods that are by nature temporary and fleeting. On the other hand, if spiritual things are considered to be of the highest value, a person is trusting in the eternal, which will not be taken away.

The interpretation of these verses by the Church Fathers clarifies the negative view of the Physician developed in the tale. Saint Chrysostom understood the ability to store up “treasures in heaven” as a reference to giving to others in their need. He writes:

[Jesus]teaches the contempt of riches itself by itself, implying that not so much for their sake who receive mercy, as for the giver’s sake, he makes these laws: so that though there be no one injuring us, or dragging us into a court of justice, even so we may despise our possessions, bestowing them on those that are in need.30

Several things are important in this excerpt. First, the giving of money to those in need is seen as an act of mercy. Second, this act of mercy is more for the giver than the receiver, which is significant because Chrysostom sees the focus of the injunction on its ability to free the giver from the love of wealth, not the alleviation of the plight of the poor. Third, the giving must be voluntary for it to release one from the bonds of materialism. Finally, Chrysostom’s advice is to fight fire with fire. The only way to rid oneself of the love of money is to give it away. A person who hoards money shows that they are enslaved by it.

Chrysostom’s comments are even stronger as he continues his discussion on Matthew 6:21:

Thou wilt undergo no small harm, in being nailed to the things below, and in becoming a slave instead of a freeman, and casting thyself out of the heavenly things, and having no power to think on aught that is high, but all about money, usuries and loans, and gains, and ignoble traffickings. Than this what could be more wretched?31

Those who are unable to free themselves from worldly things are “nailed to the things below” and have given up freedom. These words are a harsh condemnation of those who think that they have the ability to serve both God and Mammon (Matt 6:24).

Augustine broadens the reference to those who are bound by their love of earthly things, arguing that intent is more important than deed. Speaking of the “single eye” in Matthew 6:22 (“The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome”), he writes:

And this passage we are to understand in such a way as to learn from it that all our works are pure and well-pleasing in the sight of God, when they are done with a single heart, i.e.with a heavenly intent, having that end of love in view . . . . Hence we ought to take the eye here in the sense of the intent itself, wherewith we do whatever we are doing; and if this be pure and right, and looking at that which ought to be looked at, all our works which we perform in accordance therewith are necessarily good.32

In bringing intent into the equation, Augustine has argued against pretense in almsgiving and has raised the bar of responsibility from the outward act to the inward motivation. The implications of this teaching are striking. If works are done with the right intent, they are good; however, even good works done with the wrong intent are not pleasing to God.

Surely, in light of the message of the Sermon on the Mount, the Physician is not set in a good light. He is one who is manifestly not concerned with spiritual things (that is, “His studie was but litel on the Bible”), but very much concerned for material gain. Such a desire for worldly riches can be seen in his ostentatious dress, his lack of generosity (“and yet he was but esy of dispence”), and his love for gold. It is difficult to say how much of this teaching by Chrysostom and Augustine directly informed Chaucer’s characterization of the Physician, or how much Chaucer tailored his description of the Physician with the Sermon on the Mount in mind. It is difficult for informed readers, however, to ignore the Physician’s negative characterization in light of the message of the Sermon. Thus, the character of the Physician is presented in such a way that the reader should be wary of the tale that he tells, and especially of Chaucer’s modifications to the sources available to him.

The Physician’s Tale: Modifications to the Legend of Verginia

In the first line of the Physician’s Tale, the stated source of the tale is Livy’s account of “A knyght that called was Virginius” (VI.1-2). It is commonly noted, however, that the Physician’s rendition of the story is not directly dependent upon Livy’s account, but more likely follows the account given by Jean de Meun in his contribution to the Roman de la Rose.33 In what follows I will summarize the stories of both Livy and de Meun in order to provide an overview of the tale and to recognize Chaucer’s modifications to the tale better.

Livy’s version of the story focuses on the judicial abuse prevalent in Rome and highlights the struggles of the plebeians and the decimvirs. In the story, Appius Claudius is “seized with the desire to debauch a certain maiden belonging to the plebs.”34 This maiden is one of the children of Lucius Verginius, a centurion of exemplary life who is away in battle, and she is betrothed to Lucius Icilius. When Appius fails in his attempt to seduce the young woman, he concocts a plan with his client Marcus Claudius, wherein Claudius would feign ownership of the girl as a slave. When the girl enters the forum (she is now introduced as “Verginia”), Claudius seizes her, claiming that she is the daughter of his servant girl. Verginia is speechless, but her nurses draw a crowd to them by their cries. Claudius assures them he is not taking the girl by force but is rather “acting lawfully.” Verginia is taken before Appius who decides that she must be held in custody until her father is summoned to defend his right to her.

In the meantime, Verginia’s uncle and fiancé arrive, but are thwarted in their attempt to rescue her. Icilius, aware of Appius’ desire for Verginia, threatens military action if Appius continues to hold Verginia in custody. Appius pretends that the reason for Verginia’s confinement is due to her father’s absence and he gives one day for Verginius to arrive before Verginia is held by the court. The crowds are appeased for the time being and men are sent to Verginius’ camp to summon him back to Rome. At the same time, Appius sends letters to the camp commanding his colleagues to detain Verginius. The letters do not arrive on time and Verginius hastens to Rome.

The next day Verginius leads his daughter to the Forum and rallies the crowds to support his cause. Appius then mounts the tribunal, having “hardened his heart” in his lust for Verginia, and without listening to Verginius, commands that the girl to be given to Claudius. The crowd is awestruck at the proceedings, and Verginius calls Appius to account for his lust. Appius responds by accusing the crowds of planned sedition and ordering the lictor to clear the way for Claudius to claim Verginia. Verginius then asks Appius to give him time to speak to his daughter before she is taken from him. Appius grants the request, and Verginius takes his daughter to the side of the Forum. There he stabs her in the heart in order to give her freedom before he flees Rome to gather troops around him.

De Meun’s account in the Roman de la Rose follows the general outline in Livy and maintains the focus on juridical abuse:

For judges, even from the first,
Bewray themselves as men accurst,
But they their own souls should discern,
In hope the world’s respect to earn
As men, fair, careful, and upright
Not giving sentence in despite
Of truth; not false, with palms that itch
For bribes, alike from poor and rich (5885-5892).

These lines immediately precede de Meun’s account of “vile Appius” and his desire for Verginia. De Meun’s account is much shorter than Livy’s, and he fo-cuses his account on the false testimony of Claudius before the court. Verginia is described as “maid most fair” who is a “pure virgin” given “as a slave” to Claudius. Verginius, knowing that his daughter was “consigned . . . to the lust of Appius . . . strove to save his child from the stain.” He then decided to kill his daughter, this time by cutting off her head. Appius decreed death for Verginius, but the crowds intervened and Appius was thrown in jail where he committed suicide. Verginius begged for mercy for Claudius who was banished instead of hanged on the gallows.

There are four significant changes in de Meun’s version of the story compared to Livy that are important for us. First, there is no mention of Verginius being at war. Second, there is no reference to Icilius, Verginia’s fiancé. Third, there is no extended appeal for justice on the part of Verginius for his daughter. Finally, the mode of death has changed from a stab in the heart to decapitation. So, while the juridical focus remains, the characters have been cast in a different light.

While the Physician’s version of the story of Verginia is similar to both Livy and de Meun, it differs from its sources right from the beginning. Following the attribution of the story of Livy, the Physician tells us that Verginia is the only child of Verginius.35 Such modification of the tale immediately heightens the significance of Verginia to her father. Following this new description of the family situation of the characters, the Physician tells us that Verginia is “ . . . excellent in beautee / Aboven every wight that man may see” (VI.7-8). This beauty is the result of Nature’s special care in creating her “in so greet excellence” (VI.10). There is a great focus on the “form” of Verginia’s creation and the fact that great artists of the past like “Pigmalion” and “Apelles” and “Zanzis” would “werche in veyn / Outher to grave, or peynte, or forge, or bete / If they presumed me [Nature] to countrefete” (VI.16-18). Such a physical description is fitting for the Physician who, as we noted above, was consumed by worldly goods, and in St. Chrysostom’s words “nailed to the things below.”

Verginia is not, however, described only as a beautiful woman, but also a virtuous woman:

If that excellent was hire beautee,
A thousand foold more virtuous was she.
In hire ne lakked no condicioun
That is to preyse, as by discrecion (VI.40-43).

Because of Verginia’s strong moral character, Appius is not able to violate her and, as in the tale of Livy, must conspire with Claudius to gain possession of the woman by deception. Claudius, however, takes a new role in the story, that of a “cherl . . . in the toun” (C 140).36 The Middle English Dictionary defines “cherl” as someone “not belonging to the nobility or clergy, whether freeman or bondsman,” or as a “person lacking in refinement, learning, or morals; boor, ignoramus; base fellow, churl, villain.” Moreover, the term is frequently a “term of contempt or abuse.” Thus, the Physician is very negative in his identification of the man in collusion with Appius.37 And it is to this person that Verginia now belongs.

When Verginius hears of the decision he is remarkably melancholy. This is a striking difference from the traditional versions of the tale. In Livy’s account, Verginius and his companions are ready to start a war. In the Physician’s version, Verginius is resigned to the fate of his daughter and goes to his home, where the scene is filled with emotion. Verginius sits in the hall of his home for a long while before calling out to his “deere doghter” (VI.208). When Verginia arrives he begins to complain about the situation caused by Appius’ judgment. With “face deed as asshen colde” he looks into his daughter’s face and tells her what has happened, and that there are only two options: “‘Doghter,’ quod he, ‘Verginia, by thy name, / There been two weyes, outher deeth or shame’” (VI.214). For Verginius, only one of these ways is the true solution to the problem: death. Verginius bluntly tells his daughter “My pituous hand moot smyten of thyn heed” (VI.226).38

When Verginia hears the news, she pleads with her father to give her time to mourn like Jephthah’s daughter (VI.240-244).39 But before Verginius is able to answer, “. . . with that word she fil aswowne anon” (VI.245). Upon arising, her attitude changed significantly and she says: “‘Blissed by God that I shal dye a mayde! / Yif me deeth, er that I have a shame; / Dooth with youre child youre wyl, a Goddes name’” (VI.247-250). With that she swoons again, Verginius cuts off her head, and takes it into the court. The rest of the story follows closely the account in de Meun.

The Physician’s Tale: A Mock Saint’s Life

As we have seen, the Physician is an untrustworthy guide; he is a person who not only misinterprets his sources, but also fails to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He also has told the tale of Verginia in a manner that diverges significantly from his sources. How then should the Physician’s Talebe understood? A clue to interpreting the tale may be found in the relation of the tale to the tale of another, trusted, traveller in the group, the Nun.

The Second Nun’s Tale is a story about St. Cecilia and takes the form of a reli-gious biography or “saint’s life.” From the beginning of her life, Cecilia was raised in the way of Christ and committed to prayer and the love of God. Cecilia was particularly concerned for her chastity, a concern that lasts through her marriage to Valerian. On their wedding night, Cecilia warned Valerian that he would be slain by an angel if he touched her inappropriately. To avoid such a punishment, Cecilia told Valerian to seek Saint Urban, who would teach him about the ways of Christ. Valerian followed the advice of his new bride and was baptized by Urban. Later, Valerian’s brother, Tiburce, was converted and the three lived in peace. During this time Cecilia taught the men the truth about God, especially in regard to the trinitarian nature of god. Soon, however, the trio was confronted by the local prefect, Almachius, who demanded sacrifice to Jove. When the demand Christian Scholar’s Review was ignored, Cecilia, Valerian, and Tiburce were sentenced to death by beheading. Their faithfulness to the worship of God, however, resulted in the conversion of Maximus, the captain of the guard, and several other soldiers. In this way, Cecilia, Valerian, and Tiburce are characterized as faithful and true witnesses for God, whose life and death lead to the conversion of the pagans.

The story of Cecilia has several connections with the Physician’s Tale. First between the praise of Verginia’s beauty in the Physician’s Tale and the description of her virtues is a statement that may be the first connection between the story of Verginia and the story of Cecilia. In the Physician’s summary of Nature’s work in the person of Verginia he says:

For right as she kan peynte a lilie whit,
And reed a rose, right with swich peynture
She peynted hath this noble creature,
Er she was born, upon hir lymes fre,
Where as by right wiche colours sholde she be (VI.32-36).

While such a description could simply be a declaration of Verginia’s beauty, there could be another, more subtle meaning, allowing the reader to interpret the story of Verginia. The clue may come in the Second Nun’s Prologue. In this section Saint Cecilia is described solely by her character traits, highlighting her virtues instead of her physical beauty. Chaucer also inserts an important iconographic clue to her character that further enhances her role as a Saint. He says: “Thou with thy gerland wroghte with rose and lilie— / Thee meene I, mayde and martyr, Seint Cecilie” (VIII.27-28). The meaning of the rose and lily imagery here clearly refers to her martyrdom (the rose) and purity (the lily).40 In light of the overall tenor of the Physician’s Tale, it may be appropriate to read the description of Verginia with the ideas of purity and martyrdom in mind as well.

In the Physician’s list of Verginia’s character traits another interesting con-nection surfaces. Verginia is “shamefast she was in maydens shamefastnesse / Constant in herte, and evere in bisynesse / to dryve hire out of ydel slogardye” (VI.55-57). The discussion of idleness is important because it is to this aim that Chaucer introduces the tale of Cecilia. He begins the Second Nun’s Prologue with a discussion of the evils of idleness, which is the “ministrie and the norices unto vices” that can only be avoided by “bysynesse” (VIII.1, 5). Chaucer also states that “ydelnesse is roten slogardye,” linking it to the Seven Deadly Sins (VIII.17). Moreover, Chaucer urges wariness of idleness “lest that the feend thurgh ydel-ness us hente” (VIII.7). Idleness is further characterized as the means by which Satan seeks to trap people:

For he that with his thousand cordes slye
Continuelly us waiteth to biclappe,
Whan he may man in ydelnesse espye,
He kan so lightly cache hym in his trappe,
Til that a man be hent right by the lappe,
He nys nat war the feend hath hym in hond.
Wel oghte us werche and ydelnesse withstonde (VIII.8-14).

When Satan catches people in idleness, they do not even know that they are under his influence. Both Verginia and Cecilia, however, are models of “bysynesse” which protects them from the influence of the devil.

In the story of Verginia, however, the devil works in an even more cunning way. When Appius is finally introduced in the tale (VI.121), we see that his lust for Verginia is very similar to the desire that Arcite and Palamon had for Emelye in the Knight’s Tale (I.1077-1116), a lust focused on her beauty alone. In the case of Appius, however, the role of the “feend” is highlighted: “Anon the feend into his herte ran, / And taughte hym sodeynly that he by slyghte / The mayden to his pupos wynne myghte” (VI.130-132). The effect that the “feend” had on Appius is to teach him some of his “slye” tricks to capture Verginia. With the “feend” influencing Appius, the story of Verginia follows the same dark path as it did in Livy and the Roman de la Rose with several important differences. These differences also highlight the difference between the “spiritual” story of Cecilia and the “worldly” story of Verginia.

An example of the difference between the stories of Verginia and Cecilia is the results of the judgment and death of Verginia, the martyr for chastity, compared with the effects of the judgment and death of Cecilia. First there are great differences between the events leading up to the judgment of Verginia and Cecilia. Verginia was condemned because she was beautiful and would not give in to the man who lusted for her. Cecilia, on the other hand, was condemned be-cause she was at odds with the Roman religious system and many people were converting as a result of her example. In addition to this, Cecilia was given an opportunity to face her accusers in judgment. In her discussion with Almachius she clearly defended her fellow Christians as innocent in the face of accusations and reminded Almachius:

“Youre myght,” quod she, “ful litle is to drede
For every mortal mannes power nys
But lyk a bladder ful of wynd, ywys.
For with a nedles poynt, whan it is blowe,
May al the boost of it leyd full owe” (VIII.437-441).

In the face of accusations and the threat of death, Cecilia’s boldness in the face of human judgment is staggering. This is especially true when viewed in light of Verginius’ response to the judgment of Appius that Verginia was to be taken away from him. His resignation to the “all-mighty” power of the judge who was known to be a lecher is pathetic in view of Cecilia’s reliance upon the power of God and her conviction about the nature of human power compared to divine authority.

A second example that illustrates the difference between the tales of Cecilia and Verginia can be seen in the way in which they respond to the death that they must face. As noted above, Verginia pleaded with her father to give her time to mourn, she passed out, and only gained strength to face the situation after she awoke. Even then she “preyed him ful ofte / That with his swerd he wolde smyte softe” (VI.251-252). Again she passed out prior to her decapitation. Cecilia, on the other hand, faced her torture without a hint of fear. In the “bathe of flambes rede . . . She sat al coold and feelede no wo” (VIII.515, 521). With divine protec-tion, she was able to stand firm in her trial and sentencing. Even following the botched beheading, Cecilia stayed the course and continued to teach and preach for three days (VIII.535-541).

Finally, the difference between the effect of each woman’s death in the story world also points to the Physician’s lack of spiritual concern. On the one hand, the death (or life) of Cecilia is marked by a preaching of the Gospel that results in many converts. On the other hand, the Physician draws a nebulous moral from his tale:

Heere may men seen how synne hat his merite.
Beth war, for no man woot whom God wol smyte
In no degree, ne in which manere wyse;
The worm of conscience may agryse
Of wikked lyf, though it so pryvee be
That no man woot therof but God and he.
For be he lewed man, or ellis lered,
He noot how soone that he shal be afered.
Therefore I rede yow this conseil take:
Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake (VI.277-286)

After reading these words offered by the Physician as the moral of his tale, one question looms large: from where is he drawing this moral? Is it on the basis of the life of Verginia? Surely not. She was “A thousand foold more vertuous” than she was beautiful and “lakked no condicioun / That is to preyse, as by discrecioun (VI.40-41). She was characterized by “humylitee,” “abstinence,” “attempurance,” and “pacience” (VI.45-46). There is no hint in the Physician’s description of Ver-ginia that she lived a “wikked lyf” or was “lewed” the kinds of actions that put one in danger of God’s wrath according to the Physician’s moral. So, who is he talking about? Surely he is drawing his moral from the life of Appius who was the embodiment of the negative character traits in the moral to the story. If this is so, where does that leave the legacy of Verginia? Is she merely a stage prop? Is there any lasting value to her life other than as a warning to beautiful chaste women? Whatever the answer to these questions, the Physician’s account of the life of Verginia fails to offer a spiritual moral that fits the life of his “saint.”


In this paper I have argued that Chaucer characterizes the Physician as some-one who is untrustworthy because of his failure to interpret his sources properly and to apply Jesus’ warnings against the love of wealth in the Sermon on the Mount properly. A brief look at the differences between the Physician’s version of the tale of Verginia and the available sources betrays his lack of spiritual sen-sitivity. A comparison with the story of Cecilia in the Second Nun’s Tale highlights the worldliness of the story of the Physician’s “saint.” Finally, certain problems with the Physician’s moralizing at the end of the tale are now apparent. In all, the Physician in the Canterbury Tales is a character who should not be trusted by the careful reader.

Cite this article
Josh Stigall, ““His Studie was but Litel on the Bible”: Materialism and Misreading in Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 245-260


  1. Sheila Delany, “Politics and the Paralysis of Poetic Imagination,” in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, ed. Roy J. Pearcy, vol. 3 (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1981), 47. For similar com-ments see Thomas B. Hanson, “Chaucer’s Physician as Storyteller and Moralizer,” The Chaucer Review 7 (1972): 132; and R. Michael Haines, “Fortune, Nature, and Grace in Fragment C,” The Chaucer Review 10 (1976): 220.
  2. Sandra Pierson Prior, “Virginity and Sacrifice in Chaucer’s ‘Physician’s Tale,’” in Construc-tions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, eds. Cindy L. Carlson and Angela Jane Weisel (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 165.
  3. See John C. Hirsch (“Chaucer’s Roman Tales,” The Chaucer Review 31 [1996]: 47) who highlights “the tales manifest political content.”

  4. Prior, “Virginity,” 165-180; Anne Middleton, “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ens-amples Mo Than Ten’ As a Method in the Canterbury Tales,” The Chaucer Review 8 (1973): 10.
  5. At this point it may be appropriate to discuss my approach to studying the Physician’s Tale. I am not convinced, like some others (for example, Jay Ruud, “Natural Law and Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale,” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 9 [1988]: 29-45) that the description of the Physician in the General Prologue should not be a factor in interpreting his tale. Throughout the discussion in this paper, I assume that the characteriza-tion of the Physician is, in fact, of utmost importance in understanding the words Chaucer puts in his mouth. To be sure, Chaucer is the one who alters his sources, but the Physician is the one who is responsible in the story world for the tale that he tells. This includes his misreading of his sources.
  6. This question, however, has not been entirely neglected (for example, Richard L. Hoffman, “Jephthah’s Daughter and Chaucer’s Verginia,” The Chaucer Review 2 [1967]: 20-31), but often seems inconsequential to the interpretation of the Physician’s Tale.
  7. See R. Michael Haines, “Fortune,” 220-235. Huling E. Ussery (Chaucer’s Physician: Medicine and Literature in Fourteenth-Century England, Tulane Studies in English 19 [New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1971], 120-121) is adamant that the Physician and his tale are ap-propriate due to the Physician’s position as a cleric.
  8. Dolores L. Cullen, Chaucer’s Pilgrims: The Allegory (Santa Barbara, CA: Fithian Press, 2000).
  9. Such malevolence caused Saturn to devour his children as soon as they were born, and this without pity. While details of the Physician’s Tale are certainly bloody, Cullen’s argument is not convincing.9Cullen’s was not the first attempt to identify the relationship of the pilgrims to the zodiac. In 1970 William Spencer (“Are Chaucer’s Pilgrim’s Keyed to the Zodiac?” The Chaucer Review4 [1970]: 147-170) identified the Physician with Aries/Mars because his job (like that of the Knight) entailed opening wounds (162).
  10. Edwin Eleazar, “With Us Ther Was a Doctour of Phisik,” in Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrim’s in The Canterbury Tales, eds. Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 220-242. See also Ussery (Chaucer’s Physician, 5-31) who provides a very helpful discussion of medical roles in the Middle Ages and highlights the connection between medicine and the church.
  11. Eleazar, “Doctour of Phisik,” 223; cf. 225
  12. All quotations of the Canterbury Tales are from Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer: New Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) and follow the reference system in his collection.
  13. Ussery, Chaucer’s Physician, 111. There may, however, be another way to read the remark. It is possible that the Physician’s ability to talk about surgery and medicine, rather than his ability to practice medicine, is in view here. If this is the case, the Physician is characterized as a quack, whose value as a doctor and possibly even morality might be called into question.
  14. Ibid., 112. See, however, D. W. Robertson, Jr. (“The Physician’s Comic Tale,” The Chaucer Review 23 [1988]: 135) who argues that “as [the Physician] is described in the General Pro-logue he is . . . a fraud, using what the more enlightened regarded as purely superstitious astrological images.”

  15. Cullen, Chaucer’s Pilgrims, 253.
  16. Muriel Bowden, A Commentary on the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948), 207. See also Robertson, “Comic Tale,” 135.
  17. Gower, Mirour, ll. 25621ff. quoted in Bowden, General Prologue, 213.
  18. Hoffman, “Jephthah’s Daughter,” 20.
  19. Lawrence L. Besserman, Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics (Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 3.
  20. In addition to this, Augustine (On Christian Doctrine 4.5.7 [NPNF1 2:576]) writes, “Now a man speaks with more or less wisdom just as he has made more or less progress in the knowledge of Scripture; I do not mean by reading them much and committing them to memory, but by understanding them aright and carefully searching into their meaning.” Thus, one whose study of the Bible was not important is not a reliable guide.
  21. In each of these cases the character’s ability, or inability, to interpret Scripture properly is clear. For example, the Wife of Bath appeals to the example of Solomon and his many wives as justification for divorce and remarriage (see III.32-44). In the biblical narrative, however, Solomon’s wives are seen as a snare that compromise his fidelity to God (see 1 Kings 11:3-8). In contrast, the Parson makes a proper appeal to the words of Jesus and the Proverbs in support of his claim that true penitence gives rise to proper behavior (see X.112-116). The trustworthiness of the Parson compared to the Wife of Bath is also highlighted by Lawrence Besserman, “Glosynge is a Glorious Thyng: Chaucer’s Biblical Exegesis,” in Chaucer and Scrip-tural Tradition, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984), 65-69. See also Edmund Reiss, “Biblical Parody: Chaucer’s ‘Distortion’ of Scripture,” in Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984), 58-61, who argues that the Wife of Bath’s “mistreatment of Scripture reveals her inability to see beyond the letter to the spiritual sense” (for example, Graham D. Caie, “Chaucer and the Bible,” in Chaucer and Religion, ed. Helen Phillips [Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2010], 29-34).See, however, Theresa Tinkle (“The Wife of Bath’s Marginal Authority,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 [2010]: 67-101), who draws attention to evidence in glossed manuscripts that the Wife of Bath was often supported by scribal comments.
  22. In addition to the Physician’s misunderstanding of shepherd imagery in the New Testament, he also offers a questionable interpretation of the story of Jephthah and his daughter found in Judges 11:29-40. For a discussion of the relationship of Jephthah to the Physician’s Tale, see Hoffman, “Jephthah’s Daughter,” 20-35.
  23. All Scripture references are from the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, unless otherwise noted.
  24. While the consensus among scholars is that Chaucer was not dependent upon Wycliffe’s translation, the translation was most likely familiar to many of Chaucer’s readers. For a recent discussion of the relationship of Wycliffe’s translation to The Canterbury Tales, see Craig T. Fehrman, “Did Chaucer Read the Wycliffite Bible?” The Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 111-138.
  25. Ussery, Chaucer’s Physician, 97. Ussery also notes that the Host’s comments following the Physician’s Tale (“Thou are a proper man, / and lyk a prelate . . .) point to the Physician’s status as a clerk and one who may have aspired to be a prelate.
  26. Such a defense would not seem to be appropriate in light of Basil’s admonition: “Any display in cloak or shoes is to be avoided; it is idle ostentation” (Letters 22.2 [NPNF2 8:128]).
  27. 8In the medieval world gold was thought to have medical benefit for many illnesses. This line could, then, provide evidence for the Physician’s practice of good medicine. Given the placement of the line in a list of the Physician’s display of wealth, coupled with the biblical mandate to store up treasure in heaven (see below), however, the Physician’s “special” love of gold contributes to his negative characterization.
  28. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most recognizable features of the preaching of Jesus and was quoted and alluded to often by Chaucer throughout The Canterbury Tales; see David Lyle Jeffrey, “Dante and Chaucer,” in The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II, eds. Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press), 88-107.
  29. Chrysostom, The Gospel of St. Matthew 20.2 (NPNF1 10:142).
  30. Chrysostom, The Gospel of St. Matthew 20.3 (NPNF1 10:142).
  31. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount 2.13.45 (NPNF1 6:48); emphasis in original.
  32. Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose: Englished and Edited by F. S. Ellis (London, J. M. Dent and Co., 1900). The tale of Verginia was quite common in the Middle Ages appear-ing in Boccacio’s De Claris Mulieribus and in Book VII of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, among others. See Delany, “Physician’s Tale,” 47-51.
  33. All references to the Livy’s account are from Book III Chapters 44-49 of Livy, Roman His-tory vol. 2; Loeb Classical Library, trans. B. O. Foster (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967).
  34. See Livy, Roman History (3.54.2-3). The Roman de la Rose does not discuss the issue.
  35. In Livy’s account, Appius was Claudius’ patron.
  36. Even more, Appius’decision: “I deeme anon this cherl his servant have” (C 199), must have been as humorous to Chaucer’s audience as it was an obvious travesty of justice.
  37. It is ironic that Verginius sets the situation in the light of “deeth or shame” and then de-capitates his daughter, a shameful way of dying.
  38. For a discussion of the significance of Jephthah and the Physician’s Tale, see Hoffman, “Jephthah’s Daughter,” 20-35.
  39. See Ambrose, (PL 15:1966-1967), cited in Benson, Chaucer, 943.

Josh Stigall

Baylor University