The Social Position of the Surgeon in London, 1350-1450

The Social Position of the Surgeon in London, 1350-1450

Grigsby, Bryon

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 13 (1996)


Many critics’ familiarity with the medieval medical community comes from Chaucer’s characterization of the Doctor of Physic: “In al this world ne was there noon hym lik, / To speke of phisik and of surgerye.”1 But what few critics fail to realize is that there is an important difference between the Doctor’s ability to speak of surgery and his ability to perform. In the 33 lines used to characterize the doctor, Chaucer never mentions a surgical procedure. This seems to indicate that doctors might not perform surgical operations. In fact, medieval medical and surgical manuals often demonstrate ideological differences between the two different roles doctor and surgeon. This conflict of ideologies informs the tensions behind Chaucer’s portrait of the Physician. During the late Middle Ages, doctors were believed to be a repository of medical knowledge, thus their profession was seen as learned. The surgeon, on the other hand, was considered to be an artisan, thus his profession was seen as a craft. This craft ideology allowed access for untrained artisans to enter the field of surgery. In this paper, I will statistically demonstrate that the medieval English surgeon was threatened by the growing number of untrained practitioners between the years 1350 and 1450. In response to this threat, medieval surgeons attempted to institutionalize their profession. Ironically, the manner in which they defined their practice did not restrict untrained practitioners, but actually increased access for medically untrained artisans.

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