Notes – The Doctor of Physic

Notes – The Doctor of Physic



Chaucer’s character of his Doctor of Physic introduces us to a world of thought so different from our own that it would need many pages to offer an adequate commentary on it. In his day every part of the human body was supposed to be under the domination of one of the twelve Signs or Constellations (see Chaucer’s Astrology), Aries governing the head, Taurus the neck, etc. Knowledge of these relations was thought so essential that a picture illustrating them was placed in all the early printed Books of Hours or prayer books for lay use, and a physician was supposed to choose the part of the body at which to bleed a patient according to the sign then in the ascendant. Complications were introduced by the sign under which the patient was born, which was thought to rule his destiny through life; by the sign in the ascendant when his illness began, etc., etc. The skill of the astrologer-physician would be exercised in calculating the hours when the balance of contending influences would be most favourable to his patient, and choosing these for the application of his remedies. These remedies were directed, in the case of disease, to restoring the balance of the four qualities of hot, cold, dry, and moist. [As to these the popular 15th-16th century compendium, The Kalender of Shepherdes, remarks “the whiche whan they be well tempred and egall ‘that one surmount not the other ‘ than the body of a man is hole. But whan they ben unegall and myssetempred, that one domyne over another, than a man is seke or dysposed to sekeness; and they ben the qualytes that the bodyes holdeth of the elementes that they ben made and composed of, that is to wete of the fyre heet, of the water colde, of the ayre moyste, and of the erth drye” (Pynson’s edition, 1506, ed. Sommer, 1892, p. 107).] Chaucer’s physician to attain the degree of Doctor of Physic must have mastered all this lore, besides what was known of anatomy and other medical studies, properly so called. He must have been a rich man to take the degree of Doctor, which involved great expenses in fees, presents, and feasting. But he was himself thrifty and abstemious, with a touch of miserliness, and the tendency to despise theological studies, which was supposed, down to the days of Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote his Keligio Medici as a protest, to characterize his profession. In the Ellesmere manuscript the Doctor is shown in a purple surcoat and stockings, with a blue hood trimmed with white fur. He carries with him the large flask, which was taken as the pictorial emblem of his profession, and is scrutinizing its contents.

415. He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel In houres, by his magyk natureel. Natural magic was astrology, the science of the ‘Magi,’ which worked by the observation of the heavenly bodies, as opposed to black magic which dealt with spirits. The Physician watched (kepte) his patient assiduously during the time of the different conjunctions of the planets so as to apply his remedies at the most propitious moment. [To what has already been said on this point we may add as a further illustration a quotation from a book popular nearly two centuries after Chaucer wrote: “Wherefore first the position and state of the Heavens is necessary to be foreknown, and diligently to be learned of the Phisition, then the first houre of sickness approching, is exquisitely to be sought out: Last of al, the mutuall habite and disposition of the Starres for the time present is aduisedly to be discussed, and perfectly to be examined: For without their secrete influence and working, in humane bodies, there is nothing either sound or subiecte to infirmities. Recurrent acute or vehement deseases engender not: no pacient may possibly be cured by the only arte and industrie of the Phisitian, be he neuer so skilful or diligent, without the favourable configuration and fortunate constitution of them: but either he shall perish, being destitute thereof, or recouer by their meanes. But if the first houre of the desease cannot certainely be knowen, that houre is then to be obserued, in which the desease is first signified unto the Phisitian, and then, a celestiall figure for that time being erected, the position of the Heauens is cunningly to be wayed” (The learned ivorie of Hermes Trismegistus intituled latromathematica, London, 1583).]

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417 sq. Wei koude he fortunen the ascendent Of his ymages for his pacient. He was skilful in choosing for making talismans for his patients the times when the influence of the planets would make the talismans most efficacious. The images here mentioned must not be confused with those in the figure of a man which sorcerers made in order by injuring them to work corresponding injuries to the person they represented. Such images were known in England—in the reign of Edward IV. the Duchess of Bedford was accused of making a leaden one in the shape of a man-of-arms to injure the king—but a maker of them, if detected, would have been hanged or burnt. The images here alluded to were talismans, gems, or small plates of metal, such as that to which Dousterswivel in Scott’s Antiquary (chap. 24) attributed the finding by Sir Arthur Wardour of the hidden treasure. [Thus an image or figure of a falcon cut on a topaz was supposed to attract the favour of kings, while a Lion engraved on gold, made when the Sun was in Leo and the Moon not looking back on Saturn, was a preservative against the stone and all ‘hot’ complaints. (Falconis imago, si in topatio sit, ad acquirendam beneuolentiam regum, principum et magnatum facit.—Imago Leonis sculpta in auro, Sole existente in Leone, Luna Saturnum non respiciente, praeseruat a calculo calidisque aegritudinibus. Veterum Sophorum Sigilla et Imagines Magicae, e. loan Trithemii manuscripto erutae, 1612.) Arnold of Villanova, the fashionable teacher when Chaucer’s physician was at school, explains very distinctly that the virtue of these talismans depended entirely on the aspect of the planets at the time when they were made. (Ymagines fiunt habentes virtutes lapidum preciosorum mineralium nee ab aliquo habent virtutem nisi ab aspectu planetarum in tempore quo artificiuntur: cum materia illarum sit terrea, quod aperte fiunt vel metallea, igitur hinc ex parte materiae non potest multam acquirere virtutem: sed solum ex virtuti celesti que fit in tempore factionis eorum. Sic est de confectionibus quibuslibet a medicis compositis. Paulominus habent virtutem a tempore confectionis, sed in illo comparatur melius quam ex parte materiae ex qua componuntur. Arnoldi de Villanova Opera Omnia, Lugd. 1520, f. 295.) Chaucer tells us that his physician knew well how to ‘fortunen the ascendent’ of his images so as to make them efficacious for his patients. Here ‘fortunen’ is plainly equivalent to the ‘shapen for to be fortunat’ of a passage in his treatise on the Astrolabe (II. §4), and the ‘ascendent of his images’ refers to the position of the heavenly bodies at the time chosen for the images or talismans to be made. An Ascendant in astrology is the point of the ecliptic, or degree of the zodiac which at any moment is just rising above the eastern horizon, the 5 degrees of the zodiac above this point and the 25 below it being known as the ‘House of the Ascendant.’ Thus what the physician did was to choose the time when these degrees were occupied by favourable planets. “Yit seyn thise astrologiens,” Chaucer tells us, “that the assendent . . . may be shapen for to be fortunat or infortunat, as thus: a fortunat assendent clepen they whan that no wykkid planete, as Saturne or Mars, or elles the Tail of the Dragoun, is in the hous of the assendent, ne that no wikked planete have non aspecte of enemite upon the assendent; but they wool caste that they have a fortunat planet in hir assendent, and yit in hir felicitee, and than sey they that it is we1.” See Chaucer’s Astrology and the preliminary note on the Doctor.]

420. Were it of hoot, etc., the four qualities on the maintenance of which in due proportion the health of the body was supposed to depend. [See quotation from The Kalender of Shepherdes in the note on the Doctor.]

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427. ech of hem made oother for to wynne. [As Gower says (Mirour de VOmme, 1. 25627 sqq.):

L’un la receipte ordeinera

Et l’autre la componera.

Mais la value d’un botoun

Pour un florin vendu serra.”]

429-34. Wel knew he the olde Esculapius, etc. If we understand from these five lines that the Physician had read all the best medical authors and that Chaucer was learned enough to have heard of them, we shall carry away the impression we are meant to receive. But brief notes on each writer will be found in the following skilful summary: [“The order of the fifteen names in Chaucer’s list is mainly historical—first the Greeks, then the Arabs, then the more modern men. Inside these divisions the order is mainly decided by considerations of rhythm or rhyme. Aesculapius heads the list, and the physician would have found some difficulty to know his works, for he left none, if indeed he ever existed. It has been suggested that his name may have been borrowed from some treatise on medicine not now extant, but this is to enter the large and fertile but unsatisfactory field of conjecture. Hippocrates the Great—his name corrupted in the middle ages to Ypocras, and then used also for the name of a cunningly compounded drink—belongs to the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. His treatises are the earliest extant upon medicine. DlOSCORIDES, a writer on materia medica, chiefly herbs, is the earliest after the Christian era. Galen and Rufus also belonged to the second century, living in the palmy days of the Roman Empire, when the model Emperor Trajan was master of the world. Rufus was of Ephesus and wrote on the names of the parts of the human body. Galen—spelt in the Middle Ages, Galien—was probably the most eminent of all on the list. It may be doubted whether medical science made much advance from Galen to Chaucer’s time. In the list of the Arabian authorities Chaucer has preserved no order. When Greek learning became pedantry, the torch of medical learning kindled at that of the Greek schools was kept alight at Damascus and Bagdad. John Of Damascus represents the one, and Rhazes, a great authority on small-pox, the other. Both belong to the ninth century. Next come three eleventh-century men. AVICENNA (born at Bokhara), Haly, and Serapion. Averroes (born in Cordova) is of the twelfth. Haly is Alhazen, a Persian, author of a medical treatise known as the Royal Book, but more famous for his knowledge and discoveries in astronomy, i.e. astrology; but Chaucer’s physician recognized a close connexion between star-lore and the healing craft. Indeed, several of the six were not specially distinguished as physicians, but as men of wide learning. Avicenna was a commentator upon Aristotle, and Averroes upon Plato and Aristotle. Avicenna’s book was the Canon of Medicine, a text-book of medical study in the European universities of the Middle Ages. No doubt the physician read all these books in Latin—in his time Greek was never studied, much less Arabic. Serapion is a Greek name, and it was that of a famous physician living long before the time of Christ, an Alexandrine Greek who wrote against Hippocrates. His works, however, are not extant, and it is more likely that the reference is to one of two Arab physicians of the name, who very likely assumed it because of its ancient renown; they belonged to the eleventh century. Constantyn is Constantius Afer, a native of Carthage, and probably of Arab origin, but a Christian monk, who left Carthage and became one of the founders of the famous medical school at Salerno in Italy. The three last [authorities] mentioned by Chaucer lived nearer to his own time. Gilbertyn is Gilbertus Anglicus, Gilbert the Englishman, who wrote his Compendium Medicinae at some time after the middle of the thirteenth century. Bernard Gordon was a Scot, who became Professor of Medicine at Montpellier. John Of Gaddesden, of Merton College, Oxford, belongs to the generation just before Chaucer’s, dying in 1361. He is usually described as Court Physician to Edward II. He certainly had a large London practice, and once treated the king’s brother for small-pox, [by wrapping him] in scarlet cloth, in a bed and room with scarlet hangings” (Prof. E. E. Morris, on “The Physician in Chaucer” in An English Miscellany, Oxford, 1901)]. Gaddesden was of a thrifty disposition, and it has been conjectured, though without much grounds, that Chaucer had him in his mind in this sketch.

438. His studie was but litel on the Bible. [Prof. E. E. Morris not unfairly comments “Incidentally Chaucer remarks that the study of the physician was ‘but litel on the Bible.’ This comes as a surprise to those who thought that Protestantism first introduced the study of the Bible amongst the laity. There is a truly modern flavour about the jibe.” As a matter of fact the knowledge of the Bible shown by most medieval writers is very great, and the only reason why it was not translated sooner was that almost everyone who could read at all could read Latin. But Sir Thomas Browne owns of his fellow-physicians “The villany of (the Devil) takes a hint of infidelity from our studies, and by demonstrating a naturality in one way makes us mistrust a miracle in another.” Hence the proverb “Ubi tres medici, duo athei,” despite the twenty-nine medical saints and martyrs in the Roman calendar.]

441. esy of dispence, a sluggish spender.

443. For gold in phisik Is a cordial. Modern medicine is content to be mainly empirical, the old practitioners tried to imagine what remedies ought to be good in the nature of things, and in the nature of things any very precious substance seemed likely to be very efficacious. [Hence the famous electuary of gems recorded by Mesue, in which not only gold and silver leaf but pearls, fragments of sapphire, jacynth, garnets, emerald, sard, etc., were among the thirty-three ingredients. This not only cured palpitations of the heart and syncope, but improved the morals, for which reason it was much recommended to kings. In writing on gold Serapion says “limatura auri confert cardiacae melancholicae et debilitati cordis,” and Avicenna asserts that it strengthens the heart, so that cordial has its full meaning, something good for the heart, rather than, more generally, ‘a sovereign remedy,’ as it is usually explained. The belief in gold as a remedy lasted long after Chaucer’s time. In 1610 there was published at Cambridge a tract, entitled “Medicinae chymicse et veri potabilis auri assertio ex lucubrationibus Francisci Anthonii,” which provoked much controversy (cp. the epitaph on Anthony in St. Bartholomews the Great, ‘Yet shall they all commend that high design Of purest gold to make a medicine,’ etc., quoted in Knight’s London, ii. 59-61, 1842 ed.). As late as 1721 at least two formulae containing gold appear in the authorized pharmacopoeia issued with the sanction of such men as Sir Hans Sloane and Dr. Mead. For the information in this note I am indebted to Dr. J. F. Payne and Prof. Hales. I may add that if we ask why gold was thought to be specially good for the heart, the most probable answer is because the heart was influenced by the Leo, which was the House of the Sun, and gold is the metal of the sun.  See Chaucer’s Astrology, §§ 4, 12, etc.]


These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.



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