An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Understanding of Medicine and its Influence on His Work
By Krish Vigneswaran
Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol. 3 (2007)
Introduction: The detail that Geoffrey Chaucer poured into The Canterbury Tales elevated his work to a level that was previously unknown. Buried within this work are fragments of medical detail that ignite the fire for a new understanding and admiration of Chaucer’s work. Each physical description, physiological explanation, and philosophical attitude, adds to the unique interpretations of Chaucer’s work through a medical eye. It appears that Chaucer’s understanding of medicine was that it dealt primarily with maintaining a healthy and balanced life free of excess and vices, and his beliefs were rooted in early humanist philosophy. This underlying medical paradigm serves as the foundation upon which Chaucer describes physical characteristics, ailments, and treatments of his characters, along with formulating an overarching understanding of the medical practice.
The medical field finds its way into our society after passing through the hands of doctors, scientists, theologians, artists, and even writers over the course of history. Each has had a hand in shaping the science into what it is today. Faye Marie Getz in her introduction to Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture describes the prevailing notion of medicine in the medieval period where, “the best physician was not necessarily the cleverest or most experienced one, but rather the one who had devoted the most time to the doctrina, or teaching, of the past.
Thus, learned medieval Christian medicine found value not in the seeking out of new discoveries, but in the evaluation of previous learning.” It is in this school of thought that Chaucer studied medicine as well. He was known to study the works of Vincent of Beauvais, and delved into, “medical matter of ancient Greek and Roman writers, especially the texts of the Hippocratic corpus, the biological works of Aristotle, and the writings of the Greek-speaking Roman physician Galen.” Chaucer’s “Doctour of Phisik” describes all the individuals that have impacted medicine listing, “…the olde Esculapius and Deyscorides, and eek Risus, Ypocra, Haly and Galyen, Serapion, Razis and Avycen, Averrois, Damascien and Constantyn, Bernard and Gatesden and Gilbertyn.” The listing of all these famous physicians adds to the authority of the Chaucer, the legitimacy of The Canterbury Tales, and in the General Prologue builds on the exposition of the Physician’s medical knowledge.
The General Prologue is the readers first glimpse of a character, and a reflection of Chaucer directly since he is giving each description. Therefore the detail given in listing each name informs the reader that Chaucer does not plan on straying away from reality and that his characters exist in the same society the contemporary reader is in, therefore adding another dimension of familiarity to the novel. Faye Getz in another work, Medicine in the English Middle Ages comments that Chaucer was familiar with the work of each of these individuals and would familiarize himself with medicine while visiting Italy. Chaucer followed in parallel to the contemporary study of medicine and developed his own understanding of medicine and its practice.