Doctors Have Always Gotten a Bad Rap

In their 2013 guide to help physicians curate their online personas, Kevin Pho, M.D., and Susan Gay tell the story of a doctor who, upon Googling herself, finds out that she shares her name with an optometrist accused of deliberately blinding patients. In the age of WebMD, Twitter, and online rankings, the challenges of managing both one’s reputation and the endless stream of misinformation permeating the web have generated new ways of talking about medicine and its practitioners. Skepticism of medical doctors, however, has been around since long before the profession was recognized as such.

The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

The standardization of technical medical training in universities was a late development in the Middle Ages, in part because many academics considered the activities of wise women and barber surgeons to fall below the study of Aristotelian natural philosophy, astrology, and religious council. Even after universities across Western Europe began teaching hands-on medical procedures, they struggled to obligate patients, including aristocratic and royal patients, to rely exclusively on those with degrees. Well into the fifteenth century, it was inconceivable to mandate that English medical professionals be university-trained. This was because, first, the institutions that gave out these credentials in England, Oxford and Cambridge, were far removed from the most populated areas like London. Second, these urban communities were far too vast to be served by the handful of medical graduates.

The works of two major fourteenth-century authors demonstrate that the skepticism and ridicule with which doctors are often treated to this day existed even as the occupation of the medical professional was still being defined. In his “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, for instance, Geoffrey Chaucer heavily satirizes his Physician, who knows little of the Bible, dresses extravagantly, and reaps financial rewards from the plague. A trained alchemist, he uses his claimed expertise in the scientific properties of gold to benefit from its economic value: “For gold in physic (medicine) is a cordial,/ Therefore he loved gold especially” (1.443-44). Like so many of Chaucer’s professional academics in the Canterbury Tales, the Physician abuses his qualifications in order to line his pockets.

William Langland’s B text of Piers Plowman anticipates the “General Prologue”’s criticism of the Physician. In the last passus, the personification Life seeks out a “phisik” to cure him of Old Age (B.20.169). The “Physician with a furred hood,” to whom Life gives gold “that gladdened his heart,” is similar to Chaucer’s Physician in that, in his greed, he takes advantage of Life’s illness. He plays a greater role in Langland’s allegorical theology when it becomes clear that his craft obscures the need for spiritual healing. The “glass helmet,” or placebo, that he offers Life is an ineffective diversion from the true purpose of Old Age: to direct Life toward virtue and cast out spiritual despair (B.20.172). Just as the Physician of the “General Prologue” has studied a long list of Greek, Arabic, and other medical sources, “but little of the Bible” (1.438), Langland’s “phisik” transgresses in that he displaces spiritual action with medical practice.

L0029312 Woman and doctor talking, Disease man
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Woman and doctor talking; text from accompanying treatise on scrolls – Woman and doctor hanging a nude woman upside down by her feet from a scaffold over a bucket for suffumigation – Disease man
Ink and Watercolour
1420? MS. 49
Wellcome Apocalypse
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Both Chaucer and Langland portray physicians who use the cachet of their expertise to exploit their patients. One of Langland’s earliest adaptors, however, demonstrates that not everyone took such a caustic view. The maker of Piers Plowman Z, takes care to specify that medical knowledge is valuable, and that at least some of its practitioners are worth consulting. In interpolated lines not present in any other version of Piers, Hunger says:

I defame not fysyk (medicine), for the science is true,
But incompetent scoundrels that cannot read a letter
Make themselves masters men for to heal.
But they are master murderers who slay men,
And no leches (doctors) but liars, Lord amend them!
In Ecclesiastes the clerk that can read
May see it there himself and then teach another:
‘Honor the doctor,’ he says, on account of the ‘need.’ (Z.7.260-267)

In this passage, the Z maker is more concerned with the intellectual hierarchy generated by medical knowledge than he is with “fysyk” itself. He criticizes those without what he deems sufficient education, he applies the logic that the misuse of medicine can be fatal in order to encourage the exclusion of the untrained, and he adds to this sense of hierarchy by immediately asserting that “the clerk that can read” should mediate the Bible for his less educated audience. This passage indicates that understanding not just of the medical material, but also of the ethical implications underpinning it, must be mediated by a professional. The Z maker’s frustration is akin to that of many of today’s physicians when their patients diagnose themselves using pharmaceutical commercials and online forums. In the case of Piers Plowman Z, this tension is amplified by the integral nature of bodily and spiritual healing in medieval culture.

Erica Machulak
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame
Founder of Hikma Strategies

References and Further Reading

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Benson, L.D. and Robinson, F.N. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987.

Chen, Pauline W. “Doctors and Their Online Reputation.” New York Times, March 21, 2013.

Dumas, Geneviève, and Faith Wallis. “Theory and Practice in the Trial of Jean Domrémi, 1423–1427.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 55–87.

Fuller, Karrie. “The Craft of the ‘Z-Maker’: Reading the Z Text’s Unique Lines in Context.” Yearbook of Langland Studies 27 (2013): 15–43.

Getz, Faye. Medicine in the English Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. “Confronting the Scribe-Poet Binary: The Z Text, Writing Office Redaction, and the Oxford Reading Circles.” In New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, edited by Sarah Baechle, John J. Thompson, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, 489–513. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: The B Version: Will’s Visions of Piers Plowman, Do-Well, Do-Better and Do-Best. Edited by George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson. London: Athlone Press, 1975.

McVaugh, Michael. Medicine before the Plague: Practitioners and Their Patients in the Crown of Aragon, 1285-1345. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pho, Kevin, and Susan Gay. Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices. Phoenix, MD: Greenbranch Publishing, 2013.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Medicine & Society in Later Medieval England. Stroud, England: Alan Sutton Pub., 1995.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2013.

Rigg, A.G., and Brewer, Charlotte, eds. Piers Plowman: The Z Version. Studies and Texts 59. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983.

Chaucer’s Hidden Iberian Influence

Scholars have long investigated the French, Italian, and English influences on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. However, they have largely neglected the impact of authors and texts from the Iberian Peninsula.

There are several routes by which Chaucer could have been exposed to Iberian sources. First of all, he may have come into direct contact with Spanish and Catalan texts during his time in the Iberian Peninsula. In 1366, Chaucer travelled to Castile, receiving a safe conduct from the king of Navarre en route, and he may have been in the Iberian Peninsula for over a year. Some scholars have even hypothesized that Chaucer was at the battle of Nájera on April 3, 1367, with his future companions Thomas Percy, William Beachamp, John Devereaux, and Guichard d’Angle.

Chaucer could also have encountered Spanish texts through his connection to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of his principal patrons. In 1372, John of Gaunt married Constance, the oldest surviving child of Pedro I of Castile. This marriage allowed the duke to claim the throne of Castile in the name of his wife following her father’s overthrow and death. It also led to his palace at the Savoy becoming a type of Castilian court in exile. Given his relationship with John of Gaunt, as well as his wife’s position as one of Constance’s attendants from 1372-1387, it is likely that Chaucer would have come into contact with Castilian exiles while visiting the Savoy. Although John of Gaunt was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining a crown for himself, he did arrange for one of his daughters, Philippa, to become queen of Portugal, and another, Catherine, to become queen of Castile.

Chaucer’s interest in the Iberian Peninsula is clear throughout his work. Chaucer mentions “Spain,” or things Spanish in ten of the stories of the Canterbury Tales (Yeager 194-195). Chaucer also mentions Petrus Alfonsi in the Tale of Melibee, and he provides a detailed account of Pedro I’s death in the Monk’s Tale.

The mention of Alfonsi is particularly evocative because it suggests one possible area of Iberian influence. In the early twelfth century, Alfonsi wrote the Disciplina Clericalis, which was the first instance of a frametale – a popular literary structure in Arabic and Middle Eastern literature that embeds various discrete stories within a larger framing device – being composed in Latin (Wacks 25). Around a century and a half later, Alfonso X had the Arabic frametale Kalila wa-Dimna translated into the Castilian Calila e Digna. In the following decades, the frametale became a popular vernacular literary structure in the Iberian Peninsula. For instance, Ramon Llull, Don Juan Manuel, and Juan Ruiz all composed frametales in the early fourteenth century. This development in the Iberian Peninsula may have had an important, although indirect, influence on the composition of Chaucer’s own frametale, the Canterbury Tales.

Some scholars have also argued for a more direct influence. John Barker, for instance, argues that the many textual similarities between the Libro de Buen Amor and Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale could not have been accidental (609). Although he admits that both texts could have used the same source, Pope Innocent III’s De contemptu mundi sivi de miseria condicionis humane, Barker claims that the shared details in both texts – such as drunkenness, taverns, and gambling – suggests that the Libro de Buen Amor was the immediate source for the Pardoner’s Tale (610).

Another scholar, Thomas Garbáty, argues that Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato was not the only source for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (459). Instead, he posits that Chaucer was also influenced by the twelfth-century Pamphilus de Amore and the Libro de Buen Amor. In addition to being a re-telling of the story from the Pamphilus, Garbáty claims that Chaucer’s Criseyde bears a strong resemblance to Juan Ruiz’s Doña Endrina, that Pandarus matches the traditional stereotype of a Spanish “trotaconventos” (a Spanish term for a go-between), and that Boccaccio’s Troilio was far too bold to have been the inspiration for Chaucer’s Troilus (468-469).

Additionally, Eugenio Olivares Merino has shown that Chaucer may have based his account of Pedro I’s death in the Monk’s Tale on Pero López de Ayala’s history of the king (492). In particular, the second stanza includes a clear criticism of Bertrand du Guesclin, which is included by López de Ayala but not found in contemporary accounts of the event composed in French, Catalan, or Latin.

One final area where Iberian influence may be seen in Chaucer’s work is in his figure of the Pardoner. Among the reasons that the Pardoner is such a fascinating character is that he is a religious figure who is open and unrepentant about his own misdeeds. Although anticlerical literature was fairly common in the Middle Ages, it is difficult to think of another religious narrator who presents himself in such a negative way, except for one: Juan Ruiz’s pseudo-autobiographical narrator of the Libro de Buen Amor, the Archpriest of Hita.

Chaucer was not only influenced by French, Italian, and English texts, but also by works coming out of the unique political and cultural milieu of medieval Iberia. One of the most important Iberian contributions was the development and transmission of the frametale literary structure to Europe, first in Latin translations, and eventually in original vernacular compositions. In addition to this indirect influence, however, there are strong arguments suggesting that Chaucer was exposed to and directly influenced by specific Iberian authors and texts, although further study is needed.

Bretton Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Humanities
Boğaziçi University



Barker, John. “Influencia de la literatura española en la literatura inglesa.” Revista de cultura y vida universitaria 23.4 (1946): 593-610.

Garbáty, Thomas. “The Pamphilus Tradition in Ruiz and Chaucer.” Philological Quarterly 46 (1967): 457-470.

Olivares Merino, Eugenio. “Juan Ruiz’s Influence on Chaucer Revisited: A Survey.” Neophilogus 88 (2004): 145-161.

Wacks, David. Framing Iberia: Maqamat and Frametale Narratives in Medieval Spain. Brill: Leiden. 2007.

Yeager, R.F. “Chaucer Translates the Matter of Spain.” In England and Iberia in the Middle Ages, 12th-15th Century: Cultural, Literary, and Political Exchanges. Edited by María Bullón-Fernandez. Palgrave Macmillan: New York (2007): 189-215.

In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame
Founder of Hikma Strategies


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.