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Using Chaucer to recreate the Medieval Medic

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Following a performance at a medieval festival other re-enactors frequently ask me how to go about re-enacting a physician, surgeon or barber surgeon. I always warn them that in some respects – in my opinion - it is possibly one of, if not, the most difficult roles to portray in re-enactment.  While this is often met with a look of disbelief, this is not said, or meant, lightly.  The simple reason is the amount of information the re-enactor has to be familiar with and aware of. 

 

While Hugh Petrie has written an excellent introduction to medieval medicine in his “Medicine 600 AD to 1500 AD: From Leach law and magic to Classical humour therapy and Christian medical beliefs” In my opinion someone who wants to recreate the Medieval Physician, should consult Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of the Doctor in his “Prologue” of his “Canterbury Tales” (c.1390), which provides an excellent introduction to the knowledge which was required, and in some respects, is required by the re-enactor:

 

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.

 

Thus, a familiarity with the following is required:

 

i) The four humours, (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and the factors which affect them:

 

 He knew the cause of every malady,
Were it of hot or cold, of moist or dry,
And where engendered, and of what humour
;”

 

ii) Medieval astrology:

 

“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

 

iii) Medicines:

“Ready he was, with his apothecaries,
To send him drugs and all electuaries”;

 

Herbs and other healing materials. An electurary is a Medicine made with honey to make it more palatable.

iv) The Works of other Physicians:

 

Knowledge and learning does not and did not exist in a vacuum. A well-trained physician and/or surgeon was well aware of the work of his predecessors, even those from antiquity. Chaucer mentions a number of physicians:

 

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
.”

 

"Esculapius" refers to Asclepios the Ancient Greek God of healing, (his Roman name was Aesculapius. His most famous Temples (“Asclepieia”) were at Epidarus in the Northeastern Pelopennese and on the Island of Kos. At these temples snakes were used in healing rituals which also involved Ritual purification. They would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the Gods. Asculapius had a number of children including Hygieia, the goddess of health (from whose name comes the word "hygiene") and Panaceia, the godess of healing (from whose name comes the word "panacea" for a universal remedy).

 

Descorides”: Dioscorides (c.40-90 BC). A Greek physician and pharmacologist who compiled in the 1st century AD, the “De materia medica libri quinque” (“Concerning medical matters in five volumes”) This covered approximately 500 plants along with therapeutically useful animals and minerals and was still used up until the 17th Century.

 

"Rufus": Rufus of Ephesus a Greek physician of the 1st century AD who composed over 60 Greek medical treatises, however, most of them have been lost.

 

Hippocrates (460-370 BC). The most famous Greek Doctor. He attempted to banish superstition in medicine, believing that illness was not sent by the Gods or spirits, but had a physical basis. Hippocrates turned medicine into a science. It is also believed he originated the theory of the humours.

 

Galen (129-216 BC). Studied anatomy and based on animal experiments, described cranial nerves and heart valves and showed that arteries carry blood, not air. He performed many operations — including brain and eye surgeries — that were not tried again for almost two millennia. He developed bandaging methods which were used for centuries; worked out a theory about how blood moved through the lungs and carried out experiments on the nervous system. He also further developed the theory of the four humours.

 

"Hali": “Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi”. 10th Century Islamic physician and psychologist. Most famous for the “Kitab al-Maliki” or “Complete Book of the Medical Art”, (c. 980)  a textbook on medicine and psychology.

 

             "Serapion": May refer to one of three physicians: Serapion of Alexandria, a physician who lived in the 3rd century BC, none of his works now exist; Yahya ibn Sarafyun (9th century) a Syrian physician who wrote Aphorismi Magni Momenti de Medicina Practica and al-Kunnash or Ibn Sarabi; 12th century Arab christian who wrote  The Book of Simple Medicine“(Latin: De Simplicibus Medicamentis)

 

"Rhazes": Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (860–932) Islamic clinician who was chief physician at the Baghdad hospital. ) wrote the Comprehensive Book of Medicine, in which he recorded clinical cases of his own experience and of various diseases. He formulated the first known description of smallpox.

 

"Avicen": Avicenna: Abū Alī Sīnā: (c. 980 - 1037) Islamic physician,author of The Canon of Medicine (1025) and The Book of Healing, (1027). The Canon of Medicine was used as a text-book in the universities of Europe up until the 18th Century. He highlighted the contagious nature of infectious diseases  and introduced quarantine to limit the spread of contagious diseases.

 

             "Averrhoes": Ibn Roshd: 12th Century author of a seven-volume medical encyclopedia entitled Kitābu’l Kulliyāt fī al-Tibb (General Rules of Medicine),which dealt with Anatomy, Health, Diseases, Symptoms, Drugs and Foods, Regimen and Treatment of Disease;

 

Gilbert: Gilbertus Anglicus, (C1180-c1250), English physician known for his encyclopaedic work the Compendium of Medicine, written between 1230 and 1250;

 

"Constantine": Constantinus Africanus (c.1020-c.1087) medieval medical scholar who initiated the translation of Arabic medical works into Latin;

 

             "Bernard": Bernard of Gordon (c.1258-c.1320), master of the medical school at Montpellier. Author of  Lilium medicinae (“Lily of Medicine”), (1305). It was cited for three centuries, as an authoritative text on ailments ranging from headache to gout, from epilepsy to leprosy, and from insanity to impotence.

 

"Gatisden": John of Gaddesden, (1280-1360) author of the medical treatise 'Rosa Medicinae' (1314) which became the first printed medical book in the English language in 1492;

 

“John Damascene”: Johannes Damascenus, (died c. 1015). A Christian, he studied in Baghdad and lived in Egypt. His work, Liber Mesui (“The Book of Mesue”), which survives only in Latin, was very popular during the medieval period.

 

While I am not suggesting that the re-enactor runs out and learns all of these works off by heart, I do believe that the good re-enactor/historical interpreter should become familiar with the physicians and medical writings which informed the period(s) (s)he is portraying. If one is delivering a presentation upon plate armour, then surely the knowledge of how armour has evolved and developed is required.  In this way, not only is our own knowledge expanded, but also, the appreciation of the public for the work done by our ancestors can be enhanced.

 

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