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Medicine on Trial: Regulating the Health Professions in Later Medieval England

Medicine on Trial: Regulating the Health Professions in Later Medieval England

By Sara Butler

Florilegium, Vol. 28 (2011)

Blood letting

Abstract: Fears of being accused of malpractice have plagued the field of medicine since its inception. Despite the longevity of the concerns, English law was slow to catch up and only did so eventually because of the pressure exerted from below by users of medicine rather than the practitioners themselves. Much of the hostility between medical practitioners and their dissatisfied patients is reflected in disputes over payment in an economy that functioned exclusively on supply and demand: patients refused to pay for anything less than a cure, and they withheld fees when they believed that the quality of the service was less than exemplary.

Introduction: Given the hurdles one faced in trying to stay healthy in later medieval England, it should come as no surprise that the medieval English placed a premium on competent medicine. As Carole Rawcliffe has argued, “medieval life was beset by constant threats to health arising from poor diet (at both ends of the social spectrum), low levels of hygiene, high rates of infant mortality, the risks of childbirth and repeated pregnancies, accidents and injuries.” Add to this the episodic dangers of war, epidemics, and famine, as well as the lack of antibiotics, and we have a world in great need of medical expertise. Because of the prohibitive cost of professional medicine, men and women in late medieval England insisted that medical practitioners be held to high standards. Swindlers and frauds who posed as physicians but had no real medical credentials felt the full wrath of medieval society. One of the best-known, and most revealing, cases is that of Roger Clerk of Wandsworth, indicted before the mayor’s court of London in May of 1382. Claiming that “he was experienced and skilled in the art of medicine” when really he “knew nothing of either of the arts [of medicine and surgery] nor understood anything of letters,” Clerk undertook tocure Johanna, wife of Roger atte Hacche of London, of “certain bodily infirmities.” After receiving a payment of 12d, Clerk gave Johanna’s husband “an old parchment, cut or scratched across, being the leaf of a certain book, and rolled it up in a piece of cloth of gold, asserting that it would be very good for the fever and ailments of the said Johanna.” The talisman did nothing for Johanna. Feeling deceived, Hacche took Clerk to court.

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