16. THE PHYSICIAN’S TALE - GEOFFREY CHAUCER

There was, as we’re told by Titus Livius,
A knight once who was called Virginius,
A man of worth and honor through and through,
One strong in friends and with great riches too.
This knight begat a daughter by his wife 5
And had no other children all his life.
This maiden had such loveliness that she
Was fairer than all creatures men may see;
For Nature in her sovereign diligence
Had molded her with such great excellence 10
It was as if “Look here!” she would proclaim,
“I, Nature, form and paint just so, the same,
When I may choose. Who with me can compete?
Pygmalion? No, let him forge and beat,
Engrave or paint, for I will dare to say 15
Both Zeuxis and Apelles work away
In vain to sculpt and paint, to forge, create,
If me they would presume to imitate.
For He who’s the Creator principal
Has made of me His vicar general, 20
To form and paint all creatures everywhere
As I desire, and all are in my care
Beneath the changing moon. And for my task
There’s nothing as I work I need to ask,
My Lord and I are fully in accord. 25
I fashioned her in worship of my Lord,
And so I do with all my other creatures,
Whatever be their hue or other features.”
So Nature would have spoken, I would gauge.
Now she was only fourteen years of age, 30
This maiden in whom Nature took delight;
For just as she can paint a lily white
And red a rose, so in each colored feature
Had Nature come to paint this noble creature
Before her birth. And as she painted, she 35
Was free in what she thought each tint should be.
She had great lovely tresses that were done
In dye by Phoebus like his burnished sun.
Though excellent her beauty to behold,
Her virtue was to that a thousandfold; 40
In her there was no lack of things to praise,
For she was one discerning in her ways,
One chaste in soul as well as body. She
Had therefore flowered in virginity
With all humility and abstinence, 45
As one of patience, one with temperance,
With measure, too, in bearing and array.
To answer with discretion was her way;
Though she was wise as Pallas, if I dare
To say, her speech was womanly and spare, 50
Without pretentious terms as counterfeit
Of wisdom. She spoke always as befit
Her station, and her words from first to last
In virtue and gentility were cast.
And shy she was, a maiden’s modesty, 55
Steadfast in heart and working constantly
To keep from sloth. And Bacchus was in truth
No master of her mouth at all; for youth
And wine cause works of Venus to increase,
As men will build a fire with oil or grease. 60
And in her virtue, being unconstrained,
How frequently some sickness she had feigned
That she might thereby flee the company
Wherever folly likely was to be,
Such as is found at revel, feast, or dance, 65
Occasions not unknown for dalliance.
Such things as that make children come to be
Too early ripe and bold, as men may see,
Wherein lies peril since the days of yore.
Of boldness soon enough she’ll learn the lore 70
When she’s a woman, ready to be wife.
You governesses in your later life
Who have lords’ daughters given to your care,
Don’t be displeased by what I say, but bear
In mind that you’ve been put in governance 75
Because of one of two things, not by chance:
It’s that you’ve kept your virtue, or that you,
Once fallen into sin (in which you knew
The old dance well enough), have fully spurned
All such misconduct, from it having turned 80
Away forever. For Christ’s sake, therefore,
To teach them virtue strive you all the more.
Look at the poacher: when that craft he’s left,
When he gives up his appetite for theft,
To keep a forest there’s no better man. 85
Now keep them well, for if you will you can.
Be certain that to no vice you assent
(Lest you be damned for having bad intent);
Who does is traitorous, don’t doubt it’s true,
For keep in mind that which I say to you: 90
Of treasons all, the one most pestilent
Is when someone betrays the innocent.
You fathers too, and mothers, you with any
Children, be it one or be it many,
The charge is yours to keep them in surveillance 95
While they remain within your governance.
Beware lest by example, how you live,
Or by neglect to chasten them, to give
Them guidance, they may perish. I daresay
That if they do so, dearly you will pay. 100
When there’s a shepherd soft and negligent,
Many a sheep and lamb by wolf are rent.
Let that suffice, the example here is plain,
For to my subject I must turn again.
This maiden in this tale that I express 105
Had kept herself without a governess;
For in the way she lived might maidens read
As in a book every good word or deed
That in a gracious maid one looks to find,
She was so prudent, virtuous, and kind. 110
So sprung the fame, which spread by all the ways,
Both of her beauty and goodness, that praise
Was hers throughout the land from all who knew
And loved virtue–save only Envy who,
So sorry to see others have success, 115
Delights in others’ sorrow and distress.
(The Doctor has described it in this way.)
This maiden went into the town one day
For temple rites, and she took with her too
Her mother dear, as all young maidens do. 120
Now there was then a justice in the town
Who governed all that region. Up and down
Her form this judge was quick to cast his eye,
Appraising her as she went walking by
The place he stood. Immediately this brought 125
A change within his heart and mind, so caught
He was by beauty of this maiden; he
Spoke these words to himself in secrecy:
“She shall be mine, in spite of any man!”
At once into his heart the devil ran 130
And taught him right away just how he might
This maiden to his purpose win by sleight.
For surely not by bribery nor force,
He thought, could he pursue a speedy course,
For she was strong in friends and given to 135
Such virtue that the judge for certain knew
She was a maiden he might never win
In terms of tempting her to carnal sin.
So after he had thought about it much,
With a churl in that town he got in touch, 140
One whom he knew to be both slick and bold.
The judge his story to this fellow told
In secrecy, and made the fellow swear
He’d tell it to no creature anywhere
(Or if he did, his head lose for the deed). 145
When to this cursed plan they had agreed,
This judge was glad and entertained the knave
And gifts of precious nature to him gave.
So they conspired, plotting the shape and thrust
Of each point in the scheme, of how his lust 150
Might be performed with fullest subtlety,
As later you shall hear it openly.
Then homeward went this churl named Claudius.
Now this deceitful judge called Apius
(Such was his name, no fable that I tell 155
But something out of history known well,
It’s truthful in its substance, there’s no doubt)–
This judge so false went busily about
To hasten his delight all that he may.
Soon after, it befell one certain day 160
(The story goes) this judge of lying sort
As was his wont was seated in his court
Adjudging sundry cases. Rushing in
There came this lying churl, who stated then,
“My lord, I pray, if it should be your will, 165
Do right by me upon this piteous bill
In which I’ve plaint against Virginius;
And if he’d say the matter isn’t thus,
I’ll prove, and find good witness as I do,
That what’s expressed here in my bill is true.” 170
“On this, as he’s not here,” the judge replied,
“There’s nothing definite I may decide.
Let him be summoned and I’ll gladly hear;
You’ll have here all your rights, no wrong to fear.”
Virginius, to learn the judge’s will, 175
Then came. At once was read this cursed bill.
The substance of it was as you shall hear:
“My lord, to you now, Apius so dear,
Shows here your humble servant Claudius
How this knight whom they call Virginius 180
Against the law, against all equity,
Against my will express, withholds from me
My servant, one who is my thrall by right,
One who was stolen from my house by night
When she was very young. This I will prove 185
With witnesses, that justly you may move.
She’s not his daughter, say what he may say.
Wherefore to you, my lord the judge, I pray,
Yield me my slave, if that should be your will.”
And that was all the substance of his bill. 190
Virginius stared at the churl. But then,
Before his own remarks he could begin
And tell his tale to prove, as should a knight,
With many a witness how such wasn’t right,
That all was false said by his adversary, 195
This cursed judge would not a moment tarry,
Would not hear from Virginius one word,
But gave his judgment, here’s how it was heard:
“I rule at once this man shall have his thrall,
You’ll keep her in your house no more at all, 200
Go bring her forth and place her in our care.
This man shall have his slave, I so declare.”
And when this worthy knight Virginius,
Through sentence of this justice Apius,
Must to the judge his dear young daughter give 205
By way of force, in lechery to live,
Home he returned and sat within his hall
And hastily had them his daughter call.
With face as deathlike as the ashes cold,
Her humble face he started to behold; 210
A father’s pity struck him in his heart,
Yet from his purpose he would not depart.
“Daughter,” said he, “Virginia by your name,
There are two ways, it’s either death or shame
That you must suffer now. Alas, that I 215
Was ever born! You don’t deserve to die,
Nor ever have, by sword or by a knife.
O my dear daughter, ender of my life,
Whom I have raised with pleasure of such kind
That you were never once out of my mind! 220
O daughter who’s become my final woe,
And in my life my final joy also,
In patience now, O gem of chastity,
Accept your death, for this is my decree.
For love, and not for hate, you must be dead, 225
My ruthful hand must now smite off your head.
Alas, that Apius should ever lay
Eyes on you! He has falsely judged today”–
He told her of it all, as you before
Have heard, so there’s no need to tell it more. 230
“O mercy, my dear father!” said this maid,
And as she spoke both of her arms she laid
About his neck as she was wont to do.
The tears burst from her eyes as in her rue
She said to him, “Good father, shall I die? 235
Is there no grace, no remedy to try?”
“No, surely not, my daughter dear,” said he.
“Then give me time, father of mine,” said she,
“That death I might bewail a little space;
For surely Jephthah gave his daughter grace, 240
Before he slew her, to lament, alas!
And but one thing, God knows, was her trespass:
She ran that she might be the first to see
And welcome him with reverence.” When she
Had spoken this, she fell down in a swoon; 245
And after, when her faint was over soon,
She rose again, and to her father said,
“Bless God that as a virgin I’ll be dead!
Give me my death before I’m given shame;
Do with your child your will in our Lord’s name!” 250
And with that word she several times implored
That he might smite her gently with his sword;
With that she fell down swooning, lying still.
Her father, with a heavy heart and will,
Cut off her head. He grabbed it by the hair 255
And took it to the judge, still seated where
He held his court. When he’d come to behold
The sight, this judge bade (so the story’s told)
That he be taken out and hung. But then
A thousand folks at once came rushing in 260
To save the knight in rue and sympathy,
For known was all the false iniquity.
For they had all suspected from the start,
The way the churl had challenged for his part,
That it was by assent of Apius 265
Whom they knew well as being lecherous.
And so they went to Apius that day
And threw him into prison right away,
And there he slew himself. When Claudius,
Who’d been the servant of this Apius, 270
Was then condemned to hang upon a tree,
Virginius in pity prayed that he
Be spared; and so they exiled him instead,
For certainly the man had been misled.
The others then were hung without redress, 275
All those involved in this great cursedness.
Here men may see what sin’s reward is like.
Beware, for no man knows when God will strike,
Not in the least, nor in what kind of way
The worm of conscience, quaking, may betray 280
One’s wicked life, so private though it be
None knows of it but him and God. Be he
An ignorant man or learned, he knows not
How soon he may be fearing for his lot.
I warn you, then, let this advice be taken: 285
Forsake sin or for sin you’ll be forsaken.

16. THE PHYSICIAN’S TALE