The Physician's Tale, The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue, and Tale, and The Shipman's Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

This week for The Canterbury Tales I'll be writing about The Physician's Tale, and The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue, and Tale, completing Fragment VI, and then moving straight into the lengthy Fragment VII with The Shipman's Tale: if I stick to schedule, I won't be starting Fragment VIII until the week commencing 19th October (and in that week I'll be reading Fragments VIII and IX, then finishing with Fragment X the following week).

Fragment VI starts straight with The Physician's Tale: there is no introduction, prologue, or reference to the previous tale told by The Franklin. It begins,
Ther was, as telleth Titus Livius,
A knyght that called was Virginius,
Fulfild of honour and of worthynesse,
And strong of freendes, and of greet richesse.
This knight (Virginius), the Physician goes on to tell, had only one daughter (Virginia) who was so beautiful (of course: Medieval heroines are never ugly!) that not Apelles, Zeuxis, nor Pygmalion could ever imitate her. She is fourteen ("This mayde of age twelve yeer was and tweye"), very virtuous with an admirable character, and she catches the eye of a judge (Apius), who when he sees her vows, "This mayde shal be myn, for any man!" As he doesn't believe he can win her by fair means he conspires with another man of bad reputation (Claudius) and they plot together on how he will have her. And so, in court, Claudius tells Apius he has a complaint to make against Virginius, Virginia's father, and Virginius is summoned before the complaint is heard. He then alleges that Virginius has stolen his servant, claiming that Virginia is not Virginus' daughter at all:
Virginius and Virginia by Warwick Goble.
"... Sheweth youre povre servant Claudius
How that a knyght, called Virginius,
Agayns the lawe, agayn al equitee,
Holdeth, expres agayn the wyl of me,
My servant, which that is my thral by right,
Which fro myn hous was stole upon a nyght,
Whil that she was ful yong; this wol I preeve
By witnesse, lord, so that it nat yow greeve.
She nys his doghter nat, what so he seye.
Wherfore to yow, my lord the juge, I preye,
Yeld me my thral, if that it be youre wille."
Without hearing from Virginus, Apius declares,
"I deeme anon this cherl his servant have;
Thou shalt no lenger in thyn hous hir save.
Go bryng hire forth, and put hire in oure warde.
The cherl shal have his thral, this I awarde."
But, rather than let his daughter go to him he, with Virginia's blessing, kills Virginia and takes her head to the court. Apius is later killed in prison and Claudius is hung.

It's an odd tale, and the first of The Canterbury Tales that I didn't love, though that's not to say I hated it. It is, as the opening lines indicate, based on the Histories of Titus Livius, and also features in Roman de la Rose, which Chaucer translated a portion into English in 1361-67.

In the Introduction of The Pardoner we see the Host's reaction to the Physician's Tale:
"Harrow!" quod he, "by nayles and by blood!
This was a fals cherl and a fals justise.
As shameful deeth as herte may devyse
Come to thise juges and hire advocatz!
Algate this sely mayde is slayn, allas!
Allas, to deere boughte she beautee!
Wherfore I seye al day that men may see
That yiftes of Fortune and of Nature
Been cause of deeth to many a creature.
Hire beautee was hire deth, I dar wel sayn.
Allas, so pitously as she was slayn!
He then asks the Pardoner, "Tell us some mirth or comic tales right away". The Pardoner agrees, and then begins his Prologue, which is not unlike the Wife of Bath's - a fairly long account and defence of his life and means of getting money out of people. Though he believes in the maxim Radix malorum est cupidatis ("Love of money is the root of all evil"), he sells religious relics claiming that they are miraculous, and knowing full well they're not. For this he makes no apology:
I wol have moneie, wolle, chese, and whete,
Al were it yeven of the povereste page,
Or of the povereste wydwe in a village,
Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne.
Nay, I wol drynke licour of the vyne
And have a joly wenche in every toun.
And from there he goes on to tell his tale. He begins,
In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye
Of yonge folk that haunteden folye,
As riot, hasard, stywes, and tavernes,
Where as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes,
They daunce and pleyen at dees bothe day and nyght,
And eten also and drynken over hir myght,
Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise
Withinne that develes temple in cursed wise
By superfluytee abhomynable.
The Pardoner goes on to condemn these debauched young men for their drunkenness, greed, gambling, and swearing, referring, for example, to Lot:
Lo, how that dronken Looth, unkyndely,
Lay by his doghtres two, unwityngly;
So dronke he was, he nyste what he wroghte...
He also mentions Seneca, Herod, Adam, and a great many other biblical and theological traditions against these sins; a good part of this Tale actually reads more like a sermon - his tale doesn't start until about 374 lines in. He says,
But, sires, now wol I telle forth my tale.
Thise riotoures thre of whiche I telle,
Longe erst er prime rong of any belle,
Were set hem in a taverne to drynke,
And as they sat, they herde a belle clynke
Biforn a cors, was caried to his grave.
That oon of hem gan callen to his knave:
"Go bet," quod he, "and axe redily
What cors is this that passeth heer forby;
And looke that thou reporte his name weel."
The men learn that the corpse was a friend of theirs, taken by "a privee theef men clepeth Deeth [a stealthy thief men call Death]". The men decide they will kill Death - "And we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth." They are directed to Death by an old man - "Se ye that ook? Right there ye shal hym fynde," he says. They go to the oak tree, but instead of death they find a great deal of money.

They decide they will steal it, but they know not to do so during the day. They draw lots and the youngest one is then sent back to the town to bring back food and wine to keep them going until night. As the young man goes, the remaining two plot to kill him and divide the wealth between them, however the young man is also plotting to kill them and keep the gold for himself. He obtains poison then returns. The two older men stab the younger man, killing him, then they drink his wine, but by doing that they have drank the poison, so they too die: all the men have thus found Death. The Pardoner concludes,
What nedeth it to sermone of it moore?
For right as they hadde cast his deeth bifoore,
Right so they han hym slayn, and that anon.
And whan that this was doon, thus spak that oon:
"Now lat us sitte and drynke, and make us merie,
And afterward we wol his body berie."
And with that word it happed hym, par cas,
To take the botel ther the poyson was,
And drank, and yaf his felawe drynke also,
For which anon they storven bothe two.
The tale finished, the Pardoner goes on to take the opportunity to sell some of his relics, which does not go down well, especially with the Host ("I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond / In stide of relikes or of seintuarie. / Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie; / They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!"). The Knight calms the two down, and there ends Fragment VI.

Fragment VII begins with the Shipman's Tale - there is no introduction, prologue, or epilogue, and it is worth remembering that this tale was intended to be the Wife of Bath's Tale, which would have followed the Man of Law's Tale (the epilogue even ends with a promise by the Shipman to begin the next tale). However Chaucer changed his mind, so the Wife of Bath told the tale intended for the Shipman, and now the Shipman will tell the tale intended for the Wife of Bath: this is important to note as the gender of the story-teller is clearly female, but ought to be male. The tale, I should add, is inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron - the first story told on the eighth day.

The Shipman begins,
A marchant whilom dwelled at Seint-Denys,
That riche was, for which men helde hym wys.
A wyf he hadde of excellent beautee;
And compaignable and revelous was she,
Which is a thyng that causeth more dispence
Than worth is al the chiere and reverence
That men hem doon at festes and at daunces.
Swiche salutaciouns and contenaunces
Passen as dooth a shadwe upon the wal;
But wo is hym that payen moot for al!
The sely housbonde, algate he moot paye,
He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye,
Al for his owene worshipe richely,
In which array we daunce jolily.
And if that he noght may, par aventure,
Or ellis list no swich dispence endure,
But thynketh it is wasted and ylost,
Thanne moot another payen for oure cost,
Or lene us gold, and that is perilous.
A monk is a dear and good friend of the merchant, and one day when he is staying at the merchant's home he encounters the merchant's wife in the garden. Noticing she is pale he asks her if anything troubles her, and she replies that she is very unhappy in her marriage. The two strike a pact, sealed with a kiss, that they will tell each other everything.

The wife tells the monk, " Myn housbonde is to me the worste man / That evere was sith that the world bigan". She goes on to say that women desire six things (the Wife of Bath was similarly preoccupied with the question of what women want):
And wel ye woot that wommen naturelly
Desiren thynges sixe as wel as I:
They wolde that hir housbondes sholde be
Hardy and wise, and riche, and therto free,
And buxom unto his wyf and fressh abedde.
She then tells him she needs money for clothes to attend church, not wishing to bring shame and dishonour on to her husband, and she asks the monk to lend her the money. She promises to pay it back, and And doon to yow what plesance and service / That I may doon, right as yow list devise". The monk promises, and they kiss.

Soon after, the merchant plans to go to Flanders. Before he leaves, the monk asks to borrow "An hundred frankes" (the exact sum the wife asked to borrow). He consents, and the next day he leaves on his journey. A week later the wife and the monk agree that in exchange for the money the wife will sleep with the monk (something she's more than happy to do):
This faire wyf acorded with daun John
That for thise hundred frankes he sholde al nyght
Have hire in his armes bolt upright;
And this acord parfourned was in dede.
They thus spend the whole night together "In myrthe".

When the merchant returns he goes to see how his friend the monk is, and during the conversation the monk thanks him for the loan and tells him he has already paid the money back to his wife. The merchant later rebukes his wife for not telling him sooner. The wife, unable to tell him of her arrangement with the monk, tells him she already spent the money on fine clothes. She offers to pay him back 'in kind' as it were -
Ye shal my joly body have to wedde;
By God, I wol nat paye yow but abedde!
The merchant, seeing there is no point in rebuking her any further forgives her, and there the tale ends.

Next week, as I say, I'll be staying within Fragment VII - I'll be reading and writing about The Prioress's Prologue and Tale, and The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas.

← Previously: The Squire's Introduction and Tale and The Franklin's Prologue and Tale


  1. These three tales weren't as elaborate as some of the others but good, nonetheless. I really like the first one, even though it was probably over-simplified, without much subtlety to it. The second was a good Halloween-type tale and the last really wasn't my favourite.

    Chaucer certainly doesn't play favourites with the clergy. I was certainly perplexed at how the Pardoner almost gloated over his vices. Why does he feel so secure in doing this? Is he rather dense or does it tie up in his name ..... is he so used to giving pardons that he thinks he too can be pardoned from anything?

    1. Just to say Blogger must have eaten my comment because I replied to this not that long after you posted it! I've more or less replied to it on your blog just now :)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts of the Month