The General Prologue - The Physician

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 watched over his patients one and all(5)
By hours of his magic natural.
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.(10)
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—(15)
Their friendship was a thing not new begun.
In diet he was measured as could be,
Including naught of superfluity,
But nourishing and easy to digest.
He rarely heeds what Scripture might suggest.(20)
In blue and scarlet he went clad, withal,
Lined with a taffeta and with sendal;
And yet he was right careful of expense;
He kept the gold he gained from pestilence.
For gold in physic is a fine cordial,(25)
And therefore loved he gold exceeding all.

Footnotes

  1. To "give the boot" in this context means to give a remedy. Medieval connotations with "boot" would have also have associated the "boot" with deliverance from evil or peril. This further demonstrates the supernatural understanding of medicine and the human body in Chaucer's time.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. "Pestilence" here refers to the black death that swept Europe in the 14th century and wiped out 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population. People began to accuse physicians of being corrupt during this time period as the remedies they prescribed for the deadly disease repeatedly failed. Chaucer takes up this characterization of the corrupt physician who profits off of misery and cares only for money in his portrayal of the Physician.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. This is an ironic reference to the medieval treatment aurum potabile, which was a liquid medicine made of gold. This remedy was believed to be the best treatment for disease. Here, the narrator uses this reference to gold treatment to suggest that the use of gold is an essential part of being a physician, which suggests that physicians are corrupt.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. "Astronomy" in this context means astrology. In Chaucer's time, physicians believed that the body was controlled by the balance between four humors. They would use astrological charts in order to understand how these humors would be effected by the twelve constellations and prescribe treatments based on this analysis rather than empirical evidence gathered from symptoms.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In the Middle Ages, physicians ascribed to an ancient medical theory called humorism, in which the four "humours," or temperaments, governed a person's health. A person was either sanguine, melancholic, choleric, or phlegmatic. Each of these humours was associated with a bodily fluid (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) and caused a specific series of ailments if one had more or less of it than normal.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor