Emerson Brown, in his often cited essay on the Physician's Tale, concluded that an analysis of the narrator's misuse of sources in the tale leads overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the Physician is intellectually challenged. He does not understand his sources, does not understand the cause of Virginia's death, and, contrary to the claim in the General Prologue, therefore, cannot diagnose the cause of "everiche maladye." (1) Robertson made a similar case a few years later after a review of the same source studies, and in his version, the narrator's malappropriations not only mark him as another narrator pecator, as Beryl Rowland terms it, but a comic one as well. (2) Most recently Lianna Farber has argued that an analysis of sources and Chaucer's subsequent departure from them reveals the way the tale highlights Virginia's agency in a strange world wherein she willingly consents to her death. (3) Although I have cited only three essays to demonstrate a trend, there exists a steady supply of publications from mid-century to the present struggling to make sense of the tale as a whole, and, more often than not, grappling with its sources as a path for achieving that goal. Perhaps it is the puzzling nature of the narrator and his narrative that tends to put readers in the mindset of the diagnostician and seek out a "cause" of the tale's malady. (Brown waggishly argued that the cause of the problem is an inability to discern the cause.) Or perhaps it is the narrator's own bold announcement that the source of his tale is from Livy and "is no fable" but "a historial thyng notable" (155-56). (4) Whatever the reason, one truth becomes clear: the sources have played a very strong role in the reception history of this tale.
A second truth that arises upon reviewing the critical history on this subject is that the book on the sources and analogues of Chaucer's perplexing tale of Virginius and Virginia will not stay closed, despite several noteworthy achievements to do so. The first most authoritative attempt was, of course, Edgar Shannon's in 1941, gathering for Bryan and Dempster's volume Sources and Analogues what are still often referred to as the essential texts: the basic narrative from Livy's Ab urbe condita; two sections from Le Roman de la Rose (the first passage is the description of Nature and her claims against art, and the other one is Reason's retelling of the Livy narrative); and, three, passages from Ambrose's three volumes on virginity, Libri tres de virginibus. (5) Although this collection may still be generally regarded as the canon of sources for the Physician's Tale, most scholars agree now that Livy is not at all Chaucer's source and the claims to Ambrose have been repeatedly undermined by a series of publications. (6)
Yet even while these sources were still accepted, gaps still remained, and therefore another series of sources has been proposed to fill in those gaps, the so-called minor sources. In 1987, in the second major attempt to complete the story, Helen Storm Corsa stated, in the critical introduction to the Variorum Edition, that in addition to Livy (she was one of the few at that time to still credit Shannon's arguments for Livy) the tale "incorporates material also from Ovid, Augustine, Ambrose, Vincent of Beauvais, Alain de Lille, [and] possibly Fray Juan Garcia de Castrojeriz." (7) However, it is unlikely that Chaucer had all of these authors to hand. Derek Pearsall highlights the fallacy of this line of thought in a striking image. If we believed everything the source studies claim so far, we would be forced to conclude that Chaucer's books "would have filled a good-sized monastic library." Instead, much of Chaucer's Latin "tags and exempla and miscellaneous general knowledge was derived from the moral and homiletic compilations of the friars, such as John of Wales Communiloquium, and from encyclopedias such as those of Vincent of Beauvais." (8)
While acknowledging Pearsall's caveat and similar ones by Pratt, Schless, and Glending Olson and thus resisting the urge to label every echo we see as a source, we are also keenly aware that trying too hard to close the book on sources and analogues seems counter-intuitive or counter-semiotic. …