Chaucer’s Doctor of Physic

By W. H. Thompson

In the “Canterbury Tales” we have an inimitable gallery of fourteenth century portraits, drawn from life, with all a great master’s delicacy of finish and touch. And in none of these pictures does Chaucer excel himself more than in that of his “Doctor of Physic.” We may take it for granted that the portrait is no mere fanciful one, with its pre-Raphaelite minuteness of detail, sketched with the poet’s own peculiar skill. With what mischievous and yet altogether playful and good-natured humour is the man of medicine presented to us!

“With us there was a doctour of phisike
In all this world ne was there none like him
To speak of phisike and of surgerie.”

What manner of man was this paragon of medical knowledge? In personal appearance he was somewhat of an exquisite. “Clothes are unspeakably significant” saith the immortal Teufelsdrockh, and every practitioner who has his clientele largely yet to make knows the importance of being well dressed. Chaucer’s grave graduate was apparelled in a purple surcoat, and a blue and white furred hood.

“In sanguine and in perse he clad was all
Lined with taffata and with sendall,”

and yet no luxurious sybarite by any means was he,

“Of his diet measureable was he,
For it was no superfluity,
But of great nourishing and digestable.”

A man of simple habits, even perhaps given to holding his purse strings somewhat tightly.

“He was but easy of expense,
He kept that he won in pestilence.”

For, as the poet adds with his characteristic merry sly humour,

“Gold in physic is a cordial,
Therefore he loved gold in special.”

The science of medicine since Chaucer’s day has made extraordinary advances, and it is only fair to judge his doctor by contemporary standards. To-day, we fear, he would be largely regarded as little better than a charlatan and a quack. It is true, he was acquainted with all the authorities, ancient and modern, from Æsculapius and Galen down to Gaddesden, the author of the “Rosa Anglica,” the great English book of fourteenth century medicine. But this last named luminary of physic would aid him very little on the road to true knowledge. This medical “Rose,” which Leland calls a “large and learned work,” only serves to illustrate the impotence of the professors of the healing arts at that period. This is the recipe of Gaddesden for the small-pox. “After this (the appearance of the eruption) cause the whole body of your patient to be wrapped in red scarlet cloth, and command everything about the bed to be made red. This is an excellent cure. It was in this manner I treated the son of the noble king of England when he had the small-pox, and I cured him without leaving any marks.” To cure epilepsy, he orders the patient “and his parents” to fast three days, and then go to church. “The patient must first confess, and he must have mass on Friday and Saturday, and then on Sunday the priest must read over the patient’s head the gospel for September, in the time of vintage after the feast of the Holy Cross. After this the priest shall write out this portion of the gospel reverently, and bind it about the patient’s neck, and he shall be cured.” If epilepsy was to be exorcised by such a remedy as this, we venture to assert that it must have been largely a case of faith-healing.

Seeing then that such was the condition of the science of medicine in Chaucer’s days, we must take with a good deal of reservation his statement that his doctor

“Knew the cause of every malady
Were it of cold, or hot, or moist, or dry,
And where engendered, and of what humour.”

Anyhow, some of the remedies prescribed for the “sick man,” and the “drugs,” which his friends the apothecaries were so ready to supply, would have seemed extraordinary enough to us.

The poet tells us the doctor’s study was but “little in the Bible,” and that though a “perfect practitioner,” the ground of his scientific knowledge was astronomy, i.e., astrology; the “better part of medicine,” as Roger Bacon calls it. In dealing with his patients he was guided by “natural magic.”

To this practice Chaucer alludes in another of his poems, the “House of Fame.”

“And clerks eke, which con well,
All this magic naturell,
That craftily do her intents,
To make in certain ascendents,
Images—lo through which magic,
To make a man be whole or sick.”

So that in spite of what appears to us the charlatanry in his make up, the doctor was supposed to be a person of importance in the eyes of his fellow pilgrims, with quite the standing of an accredited medical man of to-day, is evidenced by the manner in which mine host Bailly addresses him. Master Bailly was no particular respecter of persons, indeed, on the contrary, he was somewhat of a Philistine; yet he was all respect to this man of medicine. It is as “Sir” Doctor of Physic, the host addresses him; also declaring him to be a “proper man,” and like a prelate. After the story of chicanery related by the Canon’s Yeoman, it is to the physician he looks to tell a tale of “honest matter.” Such is his bearing towards him throughout.

The doctor’s contribution to the “Canterbury Tales,” too, is of a serious, sober kind, in keeping with his character; and concludes with some sound moral advice. Therefore, whatever foibles he may have, the “doctor of physic” is presented to us as a sterling gentleman, no unworthy predecessor of those who to-day, on more modern lines, still follow in his footsteps.