TITLE:"The Physician's Tale" and Jephtha's Daughter
SOURCE:ANQ 20 no1 8-13 Wint 2007


    A substantial body of scholarship argues with some consistency that an analysis of the sources of and allusions in Chaucer's "Physician's Tale" not only reveals, as the General Prologue states, that the Physician's "studie was but litel on the bible" (line 438)(FN1) but also provides something of an explanation for the strange arrangement of the various parts of the tale and even further, at least in one scholar's opinion, that this bizarre and shocking story of a father decapitating his daughter should be understood as a comedy.(FN2) One of the more intriguing topics in this larger project of source study is the crux of a single allusion to the biblical story of Jephtha's daughter.(FN3) Virginia voices the allusion in her centrally important speech, which she utters when she hears her father's judgment that she must die to preserve her virginity and avoid shame:

The teeris bruste out of hir eyen two,
And seyde, "Goode fader, shal I dye?
Is ther no grace, is ther no remedye?"
        "No, certes, deere doghter myn," quod he.
        "Thanne yif me leyser, fader myn," quod she,
"My deeth for to compleyne a litel space;
For, pardee, Jepte yaf his doghter grace
For to compleyne, er he hir slow, alias." (lines 235-41)

    Although the text of Jephtha's sacrifice of this daughter in chapter 11 of the Book of Judges is a short narrative, it has a long and problematic history of exegesis.(FN4) While Virginia is correct that Jephtha gave his daughter time, two months in fact, to bewail her fate, she seems to misunderstand the nature of the complaint of Jephtha's daughter. Therefore, it would appear that the narrator, or Virginia, does not know the story very well because (a) Jephtha's daughter bewails the fact that she is going to die a virgin, and not as Virginia that she must die to remain a virgin, or (b) the figure of Jephtha is associated with a foolish vow that he should not have made, an association that calls into question the legitimacy or wisdom of Virginius's decision. As Corsa puts it, "The Old Testament story [...] was always presented either as a lament for the heroine's loss of sexual fulfillment or as a cautionary sermon on the responsibility for unwise vows" (128). Both traditions of the reception of Jephtha, therefore, seem contrary to the purposes of the tale and thus would seem to undermine the estimation of the narrator's control of the story (Brown; Robertson).
    These were not the only interpretations of this biblical narrative, of course. Richard Hoffman has elucidated the tradition of seeing Jephtha and his daughter in a positive way, as typologically associated with Christ and his humanity. Accordingly, just as Christ sacrificed his humanity to save the world, so too does Chaucer's Virginius sacrifice his daughter to preserve her virtue. This interpretation of the story may have support in the exegetical commentary, but it is not at all clear why it should be understood as relevant here. In fact, Hoffman concludes that he does not see evidence that the Physician narrator knows anything of it (30). The typological reading seems indeed far from the discourse of the tale. Furthermore, Emerson Brown points out that what is much closer to the discourse of the tale is the collection of vernacular treatments of Jephtha as a foolish judge, treatments that are evident in Gower, Manning, and Dante (139). This is the interpretation woven into the version of the story in the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, wherein the narrator warns the reader at the end of the story:
    Fowle vow is bettur to broken be Then man or woman sakles slo. (Peck 123) A foolish vow is better broken Than a man or woman guiltless slain.
    The resonance with the texts that treat the story as an example of a bad decision adds weight to the notion that the "Physician's Tale" is, at least in part, a treatment of the theme of the rash vow, which is especially pertinent if the tale is (as the Ellesmere order implies) meant to follow the "Franklin's Tale," another tale of a rash vow, complete with another virtuous young woman facing yet another prospect of the loss of chastity, in this case, wedded chastity.(FN5) Reading Jephtha in this light seems much more in line with what we might call, borrowing from analytic philosophy, the "ordinary discourse" of the Canterbury Tales (Hoffman 27-28).
    Yet, there is still another popular and vernacular reception of the Jephtha story that scholars have not commented on at all. This third gloss on Jephtha appears in what are generally referred to as the "vices and virtues manuals," similar to the "Parson's Tale," and in sermons based on those manuals. This understanding would be much closer to the imagined discourse of Chaucer's pilgrims than either the typological exegesis or the poetry of Dante; however, the meaning of this gloss may be even more at odds with the tale that those mentioned so far. Marta Harley's essay is the most recent attempt to recuperate the tale as a positive moral allegory of the soul's rejection of sin. Although she does not address the Jephtha reference except to cite Hoffman as general support for an allegorical reading of Chaucer's tale, she summarizes the moralist scholarly tradition first established by Tupper and continued by Kean and Ramsey, and as a result, stresses the importance of the popular discourses of Christianity: "it seems likely that underlying Chaucer's expansion of Virginia's virtues is the general body of popular theological handbooks, wherein vices and virtues are enumerated and described" (11). One such theological handbook, which she does not mention, yet which has been demonstrated to play a fundamental role in the Canterbury Tales, is the anonymous Summa virtutum remediis anime. According to Siegfried Wenzel, who edited and translated the text, Chaucer relied on it for much of his material about the remedies of the seven sins that he includes in the "Parson's Tale." A reference to Jephtha appears in the Summa in the last chapter, which is, in effect, a treatise on continence, chastity, and virginity. In the discussion of virginity, there is a dilation on foolish virginity, wherein Eve is offered as the primary biblical example, and surprisingly to the modem reader, in the midst of this discussion, Jephtha's daughter is presented as a second example of the foolish virgin.

Fatua uirgo est cognate filie Iepte, ludicum xi, que circuiuit in montibus duobus mensibus plangens uirgitnitatem suam. Ita fatua uirgo est que in locis spaciosis et amensis [circueundo], idest coreas ducendo et cantando, uirginitatem uenalem exponit et quasi diu seruatam deplangit. (lines 530-35)
A foolish virgin is a relative to the daughter of Jephtha, Judges 11, who wandered about the mountains for two months bewailing her virginity. Thus, that virgin is foolish who wanders in wide open and pleasant spaces, that is, who dances and sings, and offers her virginity for sale and, as it were, laments that she has kept it too long. (Wenzel 306)

    This seems--to a modem reader--like a strange use of Jephtha's daughter, but in G. R. Owst's monumental study of Middle English sermons, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, we find the story used in the same way. According to Owst, in the sermons that were, at least in part, addressed to the "gay 'society' girl of medieval England, the careers of Dinah, Jephtha's daughter, and Eve were held up as warning to the fate which social ambitions and gadding about would inevitably lead" (119). The sermon that he cites for his text is found in a British Library Harley manuscript, the language of which echoes the Summa very closely in that Jephtha's daughter is a figure of foolish virginity (here called 'nyce maydenhode') and stands as an admonition to all virgins who might decide to wander about, especially if the places of wandering include dancing and singing.

Nyce maydenhode is ylyckened to Jeptes dou3ter, that walkede aboute in the monteynes twy monthes for to wepe her maydenhode. So doth nyce maydenes that walketh aboute in medes and in fayre places ledynge daunces and syngynge, as it were schewynge hem self to lese her maydenhode, and makynge sorwe that they have ybe so longe maydenes. (MS Harley 2398, fol 39b in Owst 119-20)

    This injunction against wandering (author's emphasis) comes up several places in the vices and virtues treatment of chastity as well as in the more abstract treatments of virginity, treatments that do not mention Jephtha, such as those of Augustine, the Ancrene Riwle, and the Ayenbite of Inwyt. Partly the warning follows common sense; that is, one can avoid temptation by avoiding the occasions of temptation; however, the advice also follows most clearly from the logic of the convent or monastery; that is, one can avoid sin by staying in the cloister. The Book of Vices and Virtues has, for example, perhaps the longest discussion about chastity of any of these texts, and, although Jephtha is not mentioned, the argument for avoiding places of temptation comes up repeatedly.
    This advice to avoid places of sin resonates in the "Physician's Tale," as most readers know, with one of the strangest and seemingly most self-contradictory digressions: the aside to parents on how to choose governesses and the usefulness, in this case, of reformed sinners. All of this discussion is irrelevant to Virginia, however, who "neded no maistresse" (line 106) because she did not "wander":
    For that she wolde fleen the compaignye Where likely was to treten of folye, As is at feestes, revels, and at daunces, That been occasions of daliaunces. (lines 63-66)
    So if we imagine that the fourteenth-century audience understood Jephtha's daughter as the very representative of foolish wandering about, dancing, and singing, then when the narrator has Virginia (already praised for her fleeing of "revels" and 'daunces') ask plaintively to be like Jephtha's daughter, he is creating at the very least a painful irony. This painful incongruity, however, does not diminish Virginia; she is just as successful a vehicle of pathos, a pathetic victim in a bizarre context, as a saint. However, it does seem that this additional excavation of the Jephtha context reflects poorly on Virginius, the narrator, or both. We are asked to accept that the narrator is sincerely presenting the tale of Virginia for all of its maximum pathos while having her plea to live longer to follow the example of one who represents the opposite of her virtue. This brief addition to the source of the story in Livy would appear a very strategic alteration, for if we are correct in our understanding, it opens the logic of the tale; the allusion generates simultaneously greater pathos for Virginia, yet greater scrutiny of Virginius.
    University of West Georgia

1. All quotations are taken from The Riverside Chaucer.
2. Robertson's essay in Chaucer Review perhaps makes the boldest claims for the tale's misuse of sources as a device of comedy, but showing an awareness of the unusual nature of such an assertion, he says, "what I am about to say may seem odd or even reprehensible" (129). His statement was prescient, as there have been very few adherents to this position.
3. In any extensive reading of the "Physician's Tale," the allusion to Jephtha elicits commentary. The Variorum provides a fairly extensive annotated summary of these references in the gloss on these lines (Corsa 128-31). For a more recent summary of opinion, see Farber. Of these, Hoffman is the only source that is focused solely on explicating this allusion. The trend in all these studies is for the author to take one of two positions: one, to read the allusion in a positive light through allegory; or two, to read it as evidence of the maladroit narration of the tale.
4. The bibliography of commentary on Jephtha and Judges is extensive. However, of great interest to literary scholars is Bal, and, for a more recent summary of scholarship on the Jephtha story in an essay on early modem receptions of the tale and the issue of whether or not the sacrifice is to be taken literally, see Linton, who also discusses a fourth reception of the story. It was also read as an allegory for donating a child to God, that is, to the church--in other words, giving a child to a convent or monastery.
5. Reading the tale in light of foolish judges was worked out most extensively by Rowland. This essay concludes that the tale is more about the professional rivalry between physicians and lawyers than about the issue of virginity or any morality. Also the governance and law have been addressed by Mandel and Ruud. Finally, for an analysis of the tale in light of the strange logic of the law and strict imitation, see my essay in Chaucer's Humor, which points out the parallels between the obviously corrupt judge Apius and Virginius.

    Bal, Mieke. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
    Brown, Emerson, Jr. "What Is Chaucer Doing with the Physician and His Tale?" Philological Quarterly 60 (1981): 129-49.
    Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1987.
    Corsa, Helen Storm, ed. A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Vol 2: The Canterbury Tales. Part Seventeen: The Physician's Tale. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987.
    Farber, Lianna. "The Creation of Consent in the 'Physician's Tale.'" Chaucer Review 39 (2004): 151-64.
    Harley, Marta Powell. "Last Things First in Chaucer's 'Physician's Tale': Final Judgment and the Worm of Conscience," JEGP 91 (1992): 1-16.
    Hoffman, Richard L. "Jephthah's Daughter and Chaucer's Virginia." Chaucer Review 2 (1967): 20-31.
    Kean, Patricia. Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry. Vol. 2. Boston: Routledge, 1972.
    Linton, Anna. "Sacrificed or Spared? The Fate of Jephthah's Daughter in Early Modem Theological and Literary Texts." German Life and Letters 57.3 (2004): 237-55.
    Mandel, Jerome. "Governance in the Physician's Tale." Chaucer Review 10 (1976): 316-25.
    Owst, G. R. Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1933.
    Peck, Russell A. Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. TEAMS. Middle English Texts Ser. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan UP, 1991.
    Ramsey, Lee C. "'The Sentence of It Sooth Is': Chaucer's Physician's Tale." Chaucer Review 6 (1972): 185-97.
    Robertson, D. W., Jr. "The Physician's Comic Tale." Chaucer Review 23 (1988): 129-39.
    Rowland, Beryl. "The Physician's 'Historial Thyng Notable' and the Man of Law." ELH 40 (1973): 165-78.
    Ruud, Jay. "Natural Law and Chaucer's Physician's Tale." Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 9 (1988): 29-45.
    Tupper, Frederick. "Chaucer's Bed's Head." Modem Language Notes 30.1 (1915): 5-12.
    Wenzel, Siegfried, ed. Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime. The Chaucer Lib. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1984.