from General Prologue, The Canterbury Tales
With us ther was a Doctour of Phisik;
In al this world ne was ther noon hym lik,
To speke of phisik and of surgerye,
For he was grounded in astronomye.
He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel
In houres by his magyk natureel.
Wel koude he fortunen the ascendent
Of his ymages for his pacient.
He knew the cause of everich maladye,
Were it of hoot, or coold, or moyste, or drye,
And where they engendred, and of what humour.
He was a verray, parfit praktisour:
The cause yknowe, and of his harm the roote,
Anon he yaf the sike man his boote.
Ful redy hadde he his apothecaries
To sende hym drogges and his letuaries,
For ech of hem made oother for to wynne—
Hir friendship nas nat newe to bigynne.
Wel knew he the olde Esculapius,
And Deyscorides, and eek Rufus,
Olde Ypocras, Haly, and Galyen,
Serapion, Razis, and Avycen,
Averrois, Damascien, and Constantyn,
Bernard, and Gatesden, and Gilbertyn.
Of his diete mesurable was he,
For it was of no superfluitee,
But of greet norissyng and digestible.
His studie was but litel on the Bible.
In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al,
Lyned with taffata and with sendal;
And yet he was but esy of dispence;
He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
For gold in phisik is a cordial,
Therefore he lovede gold in special.
– Geoffrey Chaucer
verray, parfit, true, complete (echoing the famous description of the ‘verray, parfit gentil knyght’); yknowe, known; his harm, its harm; yaf, gave; boote, cure; wynne, gain; pestilence, the Black Plague, which struck England during Chaucer’s lifetime
Most of the medical authorities are Greeks, Persians or Arabs: Aesculapius, Dioscorides, Rufus of Ephesus, Hippocrates, an Ali, Galen, a Serapion, Rhazes, Avicenna, Averroes, Johannes Damascenus, Constantinus Africanus, Bernard de Gordon, John of Gaddesden, Gilbertus Anglicus
Of the major poets in English, Chaucer (c. 1343–1400) is possibly the most well versed in contemporary natural philosophy.* As well as many references throughout the Canterbury Tales and other poems to details of ‘astronomye’ (what we now call astrology), alchemy, medicine and physics, he wrote a prose Treatise on the Astrolabe.
The Canterbury Tales are Chaucer’s most famous and ambitious work. They are a series of tales of different tones and genres, which are presented within a framing story as the individual contributions of a group of pilgrims to pass the time while travelling from London to Canterbury. The “General Prologue” introduces most of the tale-tellers with vignettes such as the one above. The prologue and the tales themselves provide a very broad and detailed portrait of English society at the time; they are often ironic and critical, and many of the characters are morally weak and primarily concerned with their own gain – the physician is no exception.
The body was understood to be composed of four elements, which combined the effects of four qualities: water (cold and moist), earth (cold and dry), air (hot and moist), fire (hot and dry). The character and health of a person were determined by the balance of the bodily humours: blood (giving a sanguine nature; hot and moist), yellow bile (choleric; hot and dry), black bile (melancholy; cold and dry), phlegm (phlematic; cold and moist). The planets and zodiac (‘ymages’) were thought to affect health as well, and so the Doctor of Physic is also an expert at predicting the most propitious time to admister his remedies. This knowledge is genuine and the doctor is not a charlatan selling snake-oil like modern quacks who still talk of similar effects, unlike the alchemist of “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” who will also get his day on this blog.
But the physician doesn’t just heal people from the goodness of his heart. To give an aura of authority, he dresses in rich red and blue silk (‘sangwyn’ also ironically suggests rather messy surgery or blood-letting, and puns on the humour;** ‘pers’ may hint at the eastern source of much of his knowledge), but he is thrifty (‘esy of dispence’) and miserly (‘he kepte that he wan’). He runs a racket with his apothecaries so they can all profit, which may not have been new in the 14th century but is still not old. Powdered gold really was used as medicine for the heart, but it seems that the doctor loves it for other reasons as well.
* I write ‘natural philosophy’, as the word science did not gain its modern meaning until the 1670s; in Chaucer’s time science meant knowledge in a much broader sense. There is also a philosophical argument to be made over just when the practice of science, as it is now understood, began, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
** ‘Sanguine. Hopeful. Plus, point of interest: it also means bloody.’