Body and Soul: The Celestial Metaphor of Chaucer’s Physicians Tale

While critics and common readers alike have panned Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale as one of the more disconnected and weakly written of all the Canterbury Tales, recent thought, and certainly more abstract views, have worked ignorant of each other to provide us with a new perspective on what may be Chaucer’s most complex and metaphysical of stories. This tale is unlike Chaucer’s others not merely because it can be read from a variety of different perspectives (what tale can’t be?), but rather its vagueness, its lack of characterization, and its challenging and sometimes contradictory themes force the reader to view it from many different angles in order to gain a clear perspective. Thomas L. Kinney writes in Literature and Psychology that this tale is unsatisfying and “ineffective” due to its lack of clarity and overall confusion. He also claims that the tale muddles the reader’s values and perceptions (Kinney 79). In her Master’s Thesis titled “No Grace, No Remedye”: The Moral of the Physician’s Tale, Joanna Priest Simmers cites Donald Howard (The Idea of the Canterbury Tales) as claiming that “The Physician, in the manner of his profession, ends giving advice which sounds a little pat” (Howard 180). R. Howard Bloch points out continuity problems within the poem citing that the narrator is “so anxious to end the Physician’s Tale that the compressed resuming action is more postulated than shown” (Chaucer 145). Of course the criticisms don’t end here and just about every different reading, whether it be Freudian, Feminist, or Communist, agrees that the tale is either hurried, disjointed, or lacking any semblance of true morality. The views are much like pieces of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, when viewed individually each perspective does reflect seemingly disjointed ideas, but when viewed as a whole the tale grows into a full and complex reflection of Boethian philosophy.The story is below condensed, omitting stylistic references and highlighting important and essential facets:Straightaway the Physician tells his audience that his story is not original, but comes from one previously told by Livius Titus, the Roman historian. He introduces a knight named Virginius and speaks a great deal of this man’s virtue. “Fulfild of honour and of worthynesse,/ And strong of freendes, and of greet richesse/ This knyght a doghter hadde by his wyf;/ No children hadde he mo in al his lyf”(lines 3-6). This knyght’s daughter is by far the most beautiful of all the women mentioned in Canterbury Tales and Chaucer spends a good portion of the text describing not merely her physical beauty, but also her spiritual countenance. “And if excellent was hire beautee,/ A thousand foold moore vetruous was she./ In hire ne lakked no condicioun/ That is to preyse, as by discrecioun./ As wel in goost as body chast was she”(39-43). The story here digresses away from the main narrative and focuses instead on the goddess force of nature. Nature (in her most personified form) has truly delighted in Virginia’s formation. Indeed she challenges the greatest sculptors and painters of Grecian lore to copy her before definitively declaring that they cannot “countrefete” her creations, especially not this one. It is important to note that while nature almost boasts of her excellence, she openly admits to a connection and subservience to the One God, the “formere principal”(19). It’s also important to notice that Nature cannot claim anything beyond the perfect form she has bestowed upon Virginia. After extolling the virtues of Virginia, Chaucer’s narrator once again digresses and almost preaches to the “maistresses” (governesses) of the group to take their position seriously and work to teach those in their charge “vertu”(72-82). After apologizing for not staying on track with the narrative, the Physician takes up the story again. Whilst accompanying her mother to the town and the temple, Appius, the lecherous town magistrate or judge, sees the young girl. He remarks upon her beauty and claims “This mayde shal be myn, for any man”(129). This judge realizes that he will never be able to woo Virginia by normal means as even he can tell her virtue (simply by looking at her!). He recruits a local churl, Claudius, and hatches a villainous scheme to take Virginia as his own. A few days later Claudius appears before Apius in court and claims that Virginia is in actuality a slave, which Virginius stole from him as a small child. Upon this claim, Apius summons Virginius to court and without hearing his plea rules against the good knyght and orders him to return to the court with his daughter to turn her over to Claudius. Virginius returns home and tells his daughter the horrible news and that she has two options, “Ther been two weyes, outher deeth or shame”(214). Shame is not an option and so the good knyght must kill his daughter. Before he brings the sword to her neck she pleads for some time to mourn her lost life, but soon swoons and upon her recovery is decapitated by her father. Virginius then returns to court, lays his daughter’s head before Apius, and is subsequently sentenced to hang by the vile judge. Yet before he can be taken into custody members of the town, friends of Virginius rush the courtroom with news that they have uncovered the original plot. Apius is thrust into prison where he hangs himself and Claudius is saved from being mobbed to death by Virginius in his mercy. The tale ends with more of an epitaph for the dead Apius than a moral: “Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake.”It is quite easy to understand why Chaucer’s morals fall into question after the murder of Virginia by her father is treated with less pageantry (and lines) than the description of her virtues. To the modern reader there is almost no justice in this story as Virginia is treated with no more regard than a dearly beloved pet. We cry out for her father to defy the orders of the court, leave the city, hide his daughter, but what seems displaced honor, forces his hand and his sword. Where is the justice?At first glance this tale seems to be one of displaced morality, retold in order to present an easy backdrop for the final line urging an avoidance of sin. Yet, there are important stylistic changes Chaucer has made from the original versions of the story. Most certainly Chaucer did not actually take the whole of the story from Livy (Livius Titus), but probably obtained the story’s skeleton form from Le Roman de la Rose (Jean de Meun). Unlike Livy’s story, Virginia is not stabbed in the PhyTale, but beheaded as in Le Roman. Helen Corsa states “Whereas Livy and de Meun wish to emphasize an abuse of justice and thus give their initial focus to Appius, Chaucer wishes to emphasize the betrayal of innocence and thus focuses immediately upon Virginius and Virginia” (Corsa 6). Along with these changes, Chaucer lowers the age of Virginia from fourteen to twelve in an apparent attempt to heighten the tragic ending and emphasize the virtue that has been lost due to Apius’s lecherous treason of Virginius. By studying the subtle changes Chaucer has made to the text of the story, we begin to see an emphasis moving away from a wholly moral message and towards a much more human…and non-human tragedy. Yet, there is still the problem of Virginius murdering his daughter.When we are able to distance ourselves from the human aspect of the poem (which Chaucer brilliantly makes difficult), we begin to see a struggle of metaphysical proportions develop. Indeed, these characters are so non-characterized as to force the reader away from seeing them as merely people. “Chaucer creates Appius with broad resemblances to Fortuna. Appius is a governor, wielding absolute worldly power; he is a judge, ruling without regard for right or justice. The epithet which Chaucer most often uses for him is ‘false’, a stock epithet for Fortuna,” writes Barbara Bartholomew (Barth. 49). When viewed in this manner, the tale becomes easier to understand. Chaucer’s devotion of over 30 lines to Nature’s delight in Virginia and more than 40 lines extolling her spiritual purity cannot help but force the idea of Virginia as a metaphor for goodness and beauty in the world. Of course, Appius, or “Fortuna”, can also be viewed as that evil in the world bent on destroying beauty, and it is interesting to note that upon seeing Virginia’s glory that “Anon the feend into his herte ran”(130). When it comes to obeying the laws of the court, Virginius has no choice, even though he knows the charges against him are false and enforced by a false governor. Here is the divide between Virginius and his daughter, the older is borne not of Nature, but rather out of honor and dignity, pure virtue. “Virginius sees that submission to Appius’ verdict is out of the question. Even in the face of Natura’s hatred of death, he sees and accepts the alternative to submission…Since the mandates of Natura leave him trapped, he makes the only decision possible by exerting the agony of human will to transcend Natura and act in accord with a higher principle of love than that which demands life at all costs” (Bartholowmew 55). Virginius understands that virtue must be retained over beauty; honor over life, and so kills his daughter rather than allow her to live under the sinful dictum of Appius.As metaphors for forces beyond the scope of human understanding, this tale succeeds where many believe it fails. Like Boethius, Chaucer understands that Fortune frequently acts without regard to beauty or virtue. Virginia is a beautiful flower, the paragon of Nature’s creation and her most esteemed work of art, but still falls under the sway of Fortune. It was Fortune that allowed Nature to create such a flower and it is Fortune who dictates its destruction and defilement. Yet this story offers some hope in the character of Virginius. He will not allow Fortune to hold sway over his beautiful daughter and instead ends her life, effectively destroying Fortune’s ability to dictate fate. The true brilliance behind the story is the humanization of the characters over their incarnations in the past. Chaucer does not want this to be a merely metaphorical battle of wills, but rather acknowledges the human aspect. An aspect which is frequently caught up between these forces and suffers the consequences in pain and loss. When the tears run down Virginius’s face the reader understands the implications that the celestial has on the everyday. Body and soul this is one of Chaucer’s most ambitious and fulfilling poems, a bittersweet tale of love and loss.Annotated BibliographyBartholomew, Barbara. Fortuna and Natura. Mouton & Co. The Hague, Netherlands. 1966.Barbara Bartholomew’s text was fantastically helpful in developing the conclusion to my paper. Her text covers The Physician’s, Clerk’s, and Knight’s Tales, giving specific considerations to the singular text without relying on the surrounding tales to bolster her ideas. She references various Medieval texts and the book is itself interesting merely for these allusions.Simmers, Joanna Preast. “No Grace, No Remedye”: The Moral of the Physician’s Tale. University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Master’s Thesis. December, 1983.Who would have thought that one of our own at this University would come through with such an obscure topic? Mrs. Simmer’s thesis is pretty darn good. She covers most of the prevailing criticism against the Physician’s Tale and offers up the tale as an “anti-thesis” to its parts. To top it off, her style is rather pleasant to read.Kinney, Thomas L. “The Popular Meaning of Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale.” Literature and Psychology. 28, No. 2. 1978.This reference appeared in Mrs. Simmers Master’s Thesis. I could not find the actual publication and so I must trust the context wherein it appeared in the aforementioned text.Bloch, R. Howard. “Chaucer’s Maiden’s Head: the Physician’s Tale and the Poetics of Virginity”. Chaucer: New Casebooks. St. Martin’s Press, Inc. New York, NY. 1997.Bloch’s ideas gravitate towards feminism in this collection of articles concerning Chaucer’s tales. He seems to focus on the concept of Virginia’s “maidenhead” and concepts of virginity and loss. His article presents a very appropriate interpretation, but ultimately fails in its lack of scope.Corsa, Helen, ed. The Canterbury Tales: The Physician’s Tale. The Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Vol. II, Part 17. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK. 1987.A huge Volume of work which covers the history of the Physician’s Tale as well as influences of this tale on others and their relations to one another. Most of the information in this text was useful, but a lot of it was useless as the book devotes almost half its content to an investigation of Middle English.Scott, A.F. Who’s Who in Chaucer. New York: Tarplinger Publishing Co. Inc. 1974.No citations from this text, but it bears mentioning as a useful tool for deciphering the many characters that come into and go out of the many stories in Canterbury Tales.Wright, David, ed. The Canterbury Tales: A verse translation with an Introduction and Notes by David Wright. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.Not the best of translations, for instance Wright ages Virginia at 14 yrs old instead of 12 yrs., but good enough for me. When used in close conjunction with the text it allows for a quick referencing.

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