The Physician as he appears in an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The original is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

"The Physician's Tale" (Middle English: "The Doctor of Physiks Tale"; sometimes referred to in Modern English as "The Doctor's Tale") is a short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is believed to be a relatively early work of Chaucer's, likely written before many other tales in the collection.

The story is an adaptation of the Roman legend of Virginia, whose father murders her to prevent her from living in shame as the slave of a lecherous judge. The earliest known written version of the story, which is referred to in "The Physician's Tale" itself, appears in The History of Rome, written by the Latin author Livy in the 1st century BCE. "The Physician's Tale" differs from earlier versions of the legend in that it focuses much more on the innocent victim Virginia herself. Versions of the story written before Chaucer focus more on the wicked officials who are responsible for Virginia's fate.


Virginius, a nobleman of Rome, has a beautiful and virtuous daughter named Virginia. When Virginia has to go into the city one day, she is seen by the judge Apius. The judge immediately begins to lust after the girl. He determines that he will do whatever it takes to have her. He asks a scoundrel named Claudius to help him.

Shortly afterwards, Claudius goes to see the judge, claiming that he has a complaint against Virginius. Claudius claims that Virginia is not really Virginius' daughter at all but a slave who was stolen from Claudius' house several years earlier. Claudius demands that the girl be returned to him. Virginius is summoned to Apius' court and is told Claudius' complaint. However, before he has any chance to speak or produce witnesses who can swear that Virginia is his daughter, Virginius is declared to be at fault by Apius. The judge demands that Virginia be handed over to him.

Woodcut illustration of Verginia's trial before Appius Claudius and her death at the hand of her father Verginius - Penn Provenance Project

15th century German woodcut which depicts the legend of Virginia.

Virginius knows that Apius really intends to keep Virginia for himself and use her for his carnal pleasure. The nobleman sadly tells his daughter that it would be better that she died rather than suffer such a shameful fate. Virginia does not want to die. She faints repeatedly and asks her father if he is certain that nothing else can be done. Eventually, she reluctantly accepts her fate, imploring her father not to hurt her too much when he kills her.

After he has killed Virginia, Virginius presents her severed head to Apius. The angry judge says that Virginius should be hanged. At that moment, a crowd of people rush in to save Virginius' life. Apius is put in prison, where he later commits suicide. Claudius is initially sentenced to death, however, because Virginius says that Apius was chiefly responsible and Claudius was simply misled, the sentence is later changed to exile.

The Physician concludes his tale by saying that its tragic events were all the result of sinful lust. He urges his audience to abandon sin before sin proves their undoing.

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