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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Physician’s Tale Summary

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The knight Virginius has a beautiful young daughter who excels all others in both her appearance and her virtue. Nature, who is God’s chief deputy, has formed her perfectly for God’s worship. The young woman is only fourteen years old and is delightful to behold and greatly worthy of praise and honor. She flourishes in her chastity and is moderate and discreet in all things. She keeps herself from idleness and foolish talk and actions and remains perfectly innocent.

The Physician digresses to urge parents to guard and govern their children well, or they will pay dearly for their neglect. When shepherds are lazy, the innocent sheep are torn to pieces by wolves, the Physician reminds.

The beautiful, virtuous maiden goes out with her mother one day, and a judge sees her and lusts after her. He vows to make this girl his own one way or another. He knows that he cannot force, trick, or bribe the girl to accept him, so he devises a horrible plot. The judge, whose name is Apius, hires a scoundrel to claim in court that Virginius stole his slave and that the girl is really not the knight’s daughter after all. The judge refuses to hear Virginius’s side of the story and decides that the scoundrel must regain possession of his slave. The girl must be returned.

When he gets home, Virginius calls his daughter, whose name is Virginia, to him. He must kill her, he says, rather than allow her to experience such a fate as has been ordered. The knight knows Apius’s motives and trick, but there is nothing he can do to counter them. The girl asks for a little time to mourn her own death, but she also thanks God that she will die pure. Her father then cuts off her head.

Apius orders Virginius to be hanged, but a thousand people hurry in to defend the knight. They seize Apius and throw him into prison, where he kills himself. The scoundrel is sent into exile rather than hanged, on Virginius’s request.

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