The Canterbury Tales are a unique and long winded set of stories, in the 1300’s, that unfold on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The varied group of pilgrims aboard this journey were seeking out to view a relic of St. Thomas Beckett and were challenged to a story-telling competition for entertainment to help the time pass by. During the time that the work was written, the Black Death was prevalent in Chaucer’s own community of the UK and various surrounding locations. Since it was such a pertinent part of Chaucer’s real life he used the medical field as a facade throughout his tales to effectively show the physician’s corrupt character.
Chaucer highlights each pilgrim in a way that can insinuate either a negative or positive connotation of their character right from the start. In the the general prologue, it was assumed that the doctor was in the positive light until Chaucer mentioned his faith. “His studie was but litel on the Bible” alluded to the fact that he didn’t lead a moral life (Chaucer 438). It is thought by Christians around the world that those who do not cling to the Bible and their faith throughout their life, are not considered “godly” or “pure” and are generally looked down upon for not leading a life by example. He was considered “as being more concerned with profiting than care of individuals” which speaks directly to the kind of man that the physician was (Rogers). Low morality, yet high society status is cause for demise of the physician through his greed.
The physician was already of high status because he was educated, but what ultimately fueled his approach to be a doctor was the monetary reward. Unlike the Clerk who was educated because of his pure passion for knowledge, the physician solely became a doctor for the money. Chaucer immediately gives the reader insight to his greed in his description, “He kepte that he wan in pestilence. For gold in phisik is a cordial, Therefore he lovede gold in special.” (442-444). Use of the word “cordial” is ironic because it does mean a “pleasant-tasting medicine (dictionary.com),” but I believe Chaucer used it in a way to describe the pleasant feeling the physician had as he obtained money.
Since he was so concerned with monetary wants, it ultimately lead to pickiness when it came to treating patients. Renn explains that “a university-trained physician was a rarity and a man who reserved his skills for those who could pay his high fees, such as kings, royal advisors, high church officers, and nobles,” but choosing patients based off of their social status is a direct violation of the Hippocratic Oath. “Physicians are engaged in a moral enterprise secured by personal integrity and accountability to benefitting the ill and keeping them from injustice,” which is a direct contrast to how Chaucer’s physician acts (Miles 7).
Being preoccupied with money as a doctor leads to inaccurate treatment and diagnostics of patients. The medical practices used during this time were appropriate for the information known, but ultimately I believe that the physician used different diagnostic practices when it came to poor people rather than the royals nobility.
There were countless medical practices and theories used during the medieval period that were found to be both effective and useful when it came to the treatment of patients. Much like today, financial situations dictate how well a patient can be treated and I believe the medieval times is where this trend began. Hippocrates was the father of medicine and his teachings were what medical students studied in the 1300’s (Pikoulis 274).
“In all this world ne was ther noon hym lik,
to speke of phisik and of surgery,
For he was grounded in astronomye.
He kept his patcient a full greet deel
In houres by his magyk natureel
Wel koude he fortuinen th ascendent
Were it of hoot, or coold, or moyste, or drye,
He was a verray, parfait praktisour:
The cause yknow, and of his harm the roote (Chaucer 412-423)
Chaucer would argue that the physician was a perfect doctor but was he (422)? Although he could diagnose effectively, I do not believe he treated accordingly. There were various practices used such as bloodletting, cupping, humoral imbalance, and uroscopy (Rogers). The physician obviously had a choice of how he could proceed in each case, but I believe he took the easy way out and those that were poor had less “life threatening” problems. Chaucer dramatically describes Arcite’s body as he is dying with “Is shent with venym and corrupcioun” which directly relates his medical health to corruption and that his life was not worth preserving. He also added that no amount of medical practices could have saved him from the poison. Chaucer is therefore progressing the facade agenda of the corruption in medical field even without the physician being present.
“Ful redy hadde he his apothecaries To sende hym drogges and his letuaries, For ech of hem made oother for to wynne — Hir frendshipe nas nat new to bigynne” provides insight that both the apothecary and the physician had agreed to make each other money within the practice of medicine (Chaucer 425-28). “The apothecaries by ordinance were to prepare medicines only when prescribed by a doctor” establishes the relationship between the two based on one recommending treatments to the other and therefore creating a greater influx of money (Rogers and Renn 5). In addition to providing details between the physician and apothecary, Chaucer included the corruption of the apothecary himself individually.
Into the toun, unto a pothecarie,
And preyde hym that he hym myghte wolde selle
Som poyson, that he myghte his rattes quelle;
And eek ther was a polcat in his hawe,
That, as he seyde, his capons had yslawe,
And fayn he wolde wreke hym, if he myghte,
On vermyn that destroyed hym by nyghte (The Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer 852-58; Raychel 196)
The background of this Tale is that a greedy young thief wants to poison his other thief “co-workers” in order to have all of the stolen gold/treasure for himself. That being his motivation, Chaucer elaborates on the plan to get the poison from the apothecary without skepticism. The thief decides to tell a story of how his capons are being killed due to other animals on his farm, which was not the truth. The apothecary believes the lie and ultimately gives him the poison, but not without warning of its potency “In al this world ther is no creature, That eten or dronken hath of this confiture, Noght but the montance of a corn of whete, That he ne shal his lif anon forlete” and “this poysoun is so strong and violent.” (Chaucer 861-864, 867).
Since the apothecary so willingly gave poison to the thief, knowing how strong it was, his character is apt to be questioned. If he was as good at his job as the physician is thought to be, “He was a verray, parfit praktisour,” then why didn’t he question the thief’s story (Chaucer 422)? Why didn’t he require proof (maybe a dead capon) in order to relinquish the poison? Anyone with a moral compass in that profession would have asked questions instead of focusing purely on a sale. “Pressurized by circumstances, the traditional threefold demarcation within the medical profession was subject to continual erosion,” which confirms that those in the medical field during that time were susceptible to being corrupt and since the apothecary and physician had such a close relationship, one couldn’t be corrupt without the other (Corfield 4).
The Physician’s Tale surprisingly had nothing to do with medicine, but symbolized corruptness of his own life situation. Why would a physician have any business telling a story of “judicial misconduct” when there is a “man of law” on the pilgrimage as well (Smith 61)? To summarize the story, Virginius is a noble night who has a beautiful daughter, Virginia, that he raised to have high moral standards and love the lord (Chaucer 26). She was modest, conservative, and virtuous yet a judge named Apius wanted her for himself and had her captured.
In order to not lose her virtue, she hesitantly agreed to let her father kill her rather than be succumbed to what Apius wanted. Therefore, her father cut off her head and presented it to Apius and everyone found out he was a liar along with his helper Claudius. Apius was sentenced to prison and Claudius was exiled from their home. “Therfore I rede yow this conseil take: Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” these lines at the end of the Tale are said to mean to get rid of your sin before it gets rid of you. A doctor who dresses in fancy clothes, is all about the money, and doesn’t live a Christian life, could not actually be a doctor in the first place (Chaucer 438).
“Thomas B. Hanson takes the ingenious view that the flaws are deliberate: the Physician is a sententious fraud and his moralizing is a device contrived to show up his shortcomings” supports the idea that if the physician never actually went to medical school, then his corruptness would directly stem from not being able to accurately treat patients (Smith 64) .
Chaucer uses his tale in order to symbolize that if he is a fraud, he was unable to treat a patient the way she needed to be, and he ultimately felt guilty for what he had done; the patient being Virginia and how she is feeling and not being able to save her therefore she is killed because he was unable to treat her which symbolizes an actual patient in his life (Smith 64). Chaucer spent so much time defending the doctor and raving about how good he was at his job, but it could give readers the “too good to be true” feeling in which was bound for an underlying negative theme.
Since Chaucer lost his life before The Canterbury Tales were finished, there is a plethora of ways for his works to be analyzed. A counterargument may suggest that the Physician’s Tale was meant to be partnered with the Pardoner’s Tale as a “companion piece” (Lee 141). It could also be said that the physician was not corrupt at all and each description was truthful and accurate to his character. Although Chaucer includes many details of the medical field and specific medical practices throughout The Canterbury Tales, it is logical to believe that an underlying theme was present.
Although physicians were important for their time and were well respected in the community, fame and fortune does not make a moral person and usually has the adverse effect. The physician struggled with his faith, greed, and was unable to accept his own shortcomings which ultimately lead to his corruptness.
- Penelope J. Corfield; From Poison Peddlers to Civic Worthies: The Reputation of the Apothecaries in Georgian England, Social History of Medicine, Volume 22, Issue 1, 1 April 2009, Pages 1–21, https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkn096
- President and Fellows of Harvard College. “The Canterbury Tales.” HUIT Sites Hosting, sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/CTlist.html.
- Lee, Brian S. “The Position and Purpose of the ‘Physician’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 1987, pp. 141–160. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25094039.
- Miles, Steven H. The Hippocratic Oath and the Ethics of Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2005. EBSCOhost, proxy.campbell.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=179947&site=ehost-live.
- Pikoulis, E., Waasdorp, C., Leppaniemi, A., & Burris, D. (1998). Hippocrates: The true father of medicine. The American Surgeon, 64(3), 274-5. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.campbell.edu/docview/212790782?accountid=146941
- Raychel, Haugrud R. ‘Chaucer’s the Pardoner’s Tale, 855-58.’ The Explicator, vol. 57, no. 4, 1999, pp. 195-197. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.proxy.campbell.edu/docview/216774348?accountid=146941.
- George A. Renn III (1987) Chaucer’s Doctour of Phisik, The Explicator, 45:2, 4-5
- ‘Physician.’ All Things Chaucer: An Encyclopedia of Chaucer’s World, Shannon L. Rogers, ABC-CLIO, 1st edition, 2006. Credo Reference, http://proxy.campbell.edu/login? url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcchaucer/physician/0? institutionId=3638. Accessed 31 Oct. 2018.
- Smith, Kirk L. ‘False Care and the Canterbury Cure: Chaucer Treats the New Galen.’ Literature and Medicine, vol. 27, no. 1, 2008, pp. 61-81. ProQuest, https://search-proquest- com.proxy.campbell.edu/docview/221217427?accountid=146941.