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  • False Care and the Canterbury Cure: Chaucer Treats the New Galen
  • Kirk L. Smith (bio)


Of the stories told on the road to Canterbury, the “Physician’s Tale” has not fared well either with critics or the reading public. The death of Virginia, sacrificed to preempt rape by an unjust judge, is deprecated as a kind of “odd tale out,” exhibiting neither the “complexity and geniality” of the “Franklin’s Tale” which precedes it, nor the “arresting narrative power” of the “Pardoner’s Tale,” its companion piece in Fragment C.1 One well-known medievalist protests that the narrative shows “Chaucer working rather routinely, without his characteristic originality,”2 while anthologies of the poet’s work regularly exclude this oft-disparaged tale. Specific objections include the unharmonious intrusion of material suited to fabulae into a tale advertised by its narrator to be historically true,3 the infelicity of a plot that hinges on the premeditated killing of a blameless daughter by her doting father,4 and the Physician’s involvement in a tale apparently devoid of medical content.5 In this paper, I will not attempt to reverse the tale’s discredit, but rather moderate its often poor reception by suggesting a dimension to the narrative whose thematic appeal redeems artistic failings.6 To do so, I will concentrate on the last of the objections raised above, i.e., the question why Chaucer chose a physician to tell a story of judicial misconduct which, at first blush, appears extraneous to medical purview. The answer, I will suggest, lies in a better understanding of medicine at the time of Chaucer’s writing and the disciplinary challenges facing physicians like the eponymous narrator. [End Page 61]

The particular challenge I have in mind has less to do with the technical demands of cure than the pressures imposed by medicine’s improved social standing. The learning accrued in the high achievement of the medieval university had, by the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, given the profession unprecedented esteem which, in turn, demanded formalization of a moral code commensurate with prestige.7 In this respect, the “Physician’s Tale” is significant of an evolving ethic. The way the narrator tells it, Virginia’s doom proceeds from a betrayal of fiduciary responsibility: the duty professionals (traditionally, physicians, lawyers, and the clergy) bear to protect those committed to their care. Although the tale explores that relationship through the iniquity of a Man of Law, its placement in the mouth of a physician says something about the evolution of the medical profession toward the close of the medieval period—or so I will argue. First, however, it is necessary to consider the tale’s place in the Chaucer canon.

Certainly there is grist for complaint, not least the discomfort one feels when confronted with the spectacle of a maiden slain at her father’s hands, compounded by the enormity of interpreting the murder as an expression of paternal devotion (Virginius kills to preserve the purity he loves). Still, the rawness of the matter need not prevent enjoyment of the telling. Other tales feature acts equally odious without forfeiting sympathy, and it is reasonable to expect that a poet of Chaucer’s genius could overcome our reflexive antipathy were he exercising his usual gifts. The problem, then, is not that he has chosen a disquieting topic, but that the performance appears lackluster, the product of an artist “working his way dutifully through a tale without much inspiration or interest.”8 Also disturbing is the fact that the failure appears as much thematic as stylistic. On the face of it, the “Physician’s Tale” is a straightforward homiletic contrasting exempla of vice and virtue: a corrupt judge (“that highte Apius / So was his name”9) abuses his office to get control of an innocent maiden; his crime is thwarted when death puts her beyond villainy’s reach.

But if viciousness is the moralist’s target, why does he not draw a more consistent bead? The narrator does not simply condemn the judge’s wickedness; he rehearses other contributors to the crime as well, among them the maiden’s beauty (of which Nature gave her tempting over-abundance...


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pp. 61-81
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