The Canterbury Tales Project (see also Geoffrey Chaucer)
Back to the Seaman/The Physician/The Wife of Bath
411: With us ther was a doctour of phisik;
412: In al this world ne was the noon hym lik,
413: To speke of phisik and of surgerye
414: For he was grounded in astronomye.
415: He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel
416: In houres by his magyk natureel.
417: Wel koude he fortunen the ascendent
418: Of his ymages for his pacient.
419: He knew the cause of everich maladye,
420: Were it of hoot, or coold, or moyste, or drye,
421: And where they engendred, and of what humour.
422: He was a verray, parfit praktisour:
423: The cause yknowe, and of his harm the roote,
424: Anon he yaf the sike man his boote.
425: Ful redy hadde he his apothecaries
426: To sende hym drogges and his letuaries,
427: For ech of hem made oother for to wynne --
428: Hir frendshipe nas nat newe to bigynne.
429: Wel knew he the olde esculapius,
430: And deyscorides, and eek rufus,
431: Olde ypocras, haly, and galyen,
432: Serapion, razis, and avycen,
433: Averrois, damascien, and constantyn,
434: Bernard, and gatesden, and gilbertyn.
435: Of his diete mesurable was he,
436: For it was of no superfluitee,
437: But of greet norissyng and digestible.
438: His studie was but litel on the bible.
439: In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al,
440: Lyned with taffata and with sendal;
441: And yet he was but esy of dispence;
442: He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
443: For gold in phisik is a cordial,
444: Therefore he lovede gold in special.
Chaucer's physician seems to be an archetypal quack. The narrator suggests that his whole knowledge of 'physik and of surgerye' is based on Astronomy, of which he is sceptical. This doctor plays upon the superstitions of his patients, keeping them 'a full greet deel in houres' by calculating their star charts. That he exploits peoples' beliefs in 'magyk natureel' for his own benefits and that of his friend, the apothecary, is as despicable as the friar's exploitation of religious fear.
Chaucer the Pilgrim's antipathy to the doctor is undermined by Chaucer the Poet's recognition that he is actually very well read, having studied all the traditional medical texts of the time. Moreover, despite the expensive and obscure remedies he prescribes, he realises that the most important prerequisite for good health is a healthy diet. The moderation he exercises in his meals, however, is utterly absent from his dress. Dressing in fine materials dyed in the most expensive colours, it is obvious that the money he earned in the time of the plague has gone only into lining his pockets.
Although the doctor is a charlatan and possibly a fraud, he is, to a modern capitalist society, not only a rather familiar figure, but not a totally unsympathetic one.
Modern English translation from www.fordham.edu:
With us there was a doctor of physic;
In all this world was none like him to pick
For talk of medicine and surgery;
For he was grounded in astronomy.
He often kept a patient from the pall
By horoscopes and magic natural.
Well could he tell the fortune ascendent
Within the houses for his sick patient.
He knew the cause of every malady,
Were it of hot or cold, of moist or dry,
And where engendered, and of what humour;
He was a very good practitioner.
The cause being known, down to the deepest root,
Anon he gave to the sick man his boot.
Ready he was, with his apothecaries,
To send him drugs and all electuaries;
By mutual aid much gold they'd always won-
Their friendship was a thing not new begun.
Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.
In diet he was measured as could be,
Including naught of superfluity,
But nourishing and easy. It's no libel
To say he read but little in the Bible.
In blue and scarlet he went clad, withal,
Lined with a taffeta and with sendal;
And yet he was right chary of expense;
He kept the gold he gained from pestilence.
For gold in physic is a fine cordial,
And therefore loved he gold exceeding all.