Physician’s Tale, Favorite Comments

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Maybe you’ve also just graded your first set of Canterbury Tales papers. Mine were on the Physician’s Tale, where I now routinely start because of David Wallace’s facetious (?) recommendation at the New Chaucer Society in 2010. He was right, anyway.The Physician’s Tale is short, with a stirring narrative, moral and ironic, with a clear source and clear alterations, without a lot of weird vocabulary: in other words, a better place to introduce students to the tales than the usual slog through the General Prologue.

Apart from my habitual comments about characters being tools and not real people, about literature making culture and not just “reflecting” it, and about upper-class women having a lot less freedom in marriage than women in general, I’ve landed on some new ideas, because grading is also thinking. Sometimes.

Here’s my list of some favorite new comments, maybe of use to you when you next read or teach this tale:

  1. Who is responsible here? Apius sins because devils enter into him; Virginius calls his daughter the ender of his life. And the Host dodges the Physician’s weird moral about ‘sin finding you out.’ The men shift responsibility onto anyone but themselves.
  2. Virginius’s belief that virtue requires female virginity does kill him, in a sense, since it turns him into a killing machine, a zombie working for a patriarchal system that compels him to kill what he loves most
  3. human sacrifice simultaneously degrades humans and attests to the supreme value of humans as the greatest sacrifice
  4. martyrs are killed by the enemies of God, while sacrifices are offered by his friends: is Virginia a martyr or a sacrifice? And what does that make Virginius?
  5. since Virginius is well supplied with money and friends, he could have saved Virginia, especially because Chaucer has cut out the political content of his source material. So, Virginius fails Virginia as a knight and father as much as Apius fails her and the law in general as a judge. The tale’s about a systematic failure of masculine authority and the resulting death of a girl who, alone, has done everything right.
  6. Why so much attention to Virginia’s whole slate of virtues when the threatened failure of just the one means she must die? How shaky is virginity as the foundation of a whole system of virtue?
  7. Why is the tale so specific about Virginia’s honors and so vague about her father’s: full of honor and worthiness, and that’s it.
  8. Note how Virginius spares Apius and kills his daughter and the various guilty churls: think about the prerogatives of inter-masculine respect.

Detail Filippino Lippi, “Scenes from the History of Virginia,” a cassone (c. 1470-80), at the Louvre.

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