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Politics and the Paralysis of Poetic Imagination in The Physician's Tale Sheila Delany Simon Fraser University T,PHYSIOAN'S TALE ;, generally conceded to be one of Chaucds least interesting and least successful efforts: flat characters, a rather incompetent narrative flawed by irrelevant digressions, a plot exceeding­ ly improbable and-unlike The Clerk's or The Man of Law's Tales­ without redeeming symbolic depth. However, the failures of a great poet must interest us at least to the extent that they shed light on his creativity, and I want to propose in this paper that the intersection of Chaucer's own social views with those of his sources produced, in The Physician's Tale, an imaginative impasse manifested in the esthetic inferiority of the tale. I What stands out in The Physician's Tale, setting it apart from Chauc­ er's sources and from other medieval versions of the Virginius legend accessible to him, is the virtually complete depoliticization of a political anecdote. The story of Virginius-who kills his daughter rather than see her coerced by legal fraud into a life of fornication-was known to the Middle Ages in Livy's history of Rome (Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita III: 44 ff.). Livy adapted it in turn from an older regional legend. Chaucer probably used Livy's history, at least as a supplement to his main source, the Roman de la Rose ofJean de Meun.1 Livy's theme was the degeneration 1 That Chaucer refers to Livy in the first line of The Physician's Tale is far from conclusive evidence of use; likewise his references to Livy as a source for the legend of 47 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER of Rome from its great republican golden age: he sets the legend of Virginius in the mid-fifth century B.C., some 400 years in the past, during a period of intense conflict between plebs and patriciate. 2 The legend shows how tyrannical were the patrician rulers and how oppressed the plebs; it also serves to justify the "Third Roman Revolution" of449 B.C. which won important gains for the plebs. Appius Claudius, the judge who perverts justice in the interest of lust, is a patrician and decemvir. Virginius is a plebeian and military man. Virginia is engaged to marry Icilius, also a plebeian and a noted champion of his class. The other important dramatis persona in Livy's account is the Roman popu­ lace, who are present throughout the story. Virginia's arrest occurs in the crowded forum; the people foil the seizure and offer bail for her; the trial and sentence are public, as is the murder. Protesting the atrocity to which Virginius has been forced to save his daughter's honor, the people unite with the army to depose Appius and the rest of the decemvirate. They demand and win restoration of the people's tribunes-plebeian magistrates whose veto could protect the plebs against unjust patrician legislation. They also win the right to judicial appeal, and a series of measures is passed (the Valerian-Horatian laws) which increased plebeian powers. Appius kills himself in prison; his accomplice goes into exile; Roman popular liberties are restored. Jean de Meun relied on Livy for his account ofthe story, but in several ways depoliticized it. Specific social classes are not named (except that Virginius is "bons chevaliers bien renomez");3 the populace enter only at Lucrece (LGW, 1683, 1873; BD, 1084). Bruce Harbert asserts chat there is no sure evidence of direct borrowing from Livy ("Chaucer and the Latin Classics" in Writers and Their Background: Chaucer, ed. D. Brewer, London, 1974). However he does acknow­ ledge, along with Edgar Shannon (Sources and Analogues), that there are some details in Chaucer chat appear only in Livy. On Livy's use of traditional material, see Ettore Pais, Ancient Legends of Roman History (London, 1906). 2 During the period 500-300 B.C., "plebs" meant a section of the population chat could loosely be terned "the middle classes": chat is, between noble patricians and the poor, or, as the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature puts it, "the Roman burgesses ocher than the patricians." Their struggle, a...


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