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The Medieval Art of Medicine: A Poem

What was it like to be a physician in the Middle Ages? A poem by a 14th-century doctor sheds a little light on the challenges of practicing medicine in his own time.

medieval physician

The Latin poem was discovered by historian Donald Yates, and was edited and published in 1980. It was discovered written in a blank page following a treatise of Galen’s De morbo et accidenti, which can be found in the Museum Carolino-Augusteum in Salzburg. Yates was not able to identify the author, but believes he was a physician.

The poem itself is 35 lines, written in rhymed hexameters. Yates adds that it was “written in a small rounded, finely shaded University notula hand of the fourteenth-century, the verse show signs of having been composed on the spot. A line toward the end, for instance, has been reworked in such a way as to make one suspect that the author changed his mind as he wrote it. The poet/copyist may be pronounced competent, if not daring or brilliant.”

Here is the translation:

Almighty God shaped Medicine on mold
To relieve Disease’s ruin and mankind’s load.
With powders, brushwood, roots, and leaves, and herbs,
Bloodletting, stones, secretions, seeds, charms, words,

And potions, every ill falls dead away.
But quick! draw back from Death’s fell sway.
Or perish, Medicine, when Death demands its due.
If Death could be delayed or cured by you,

Then Galen, Archigenes, and Hippocrates
Would be alive. Known Death’s supremacy
When doctors die! The world’s mortality
And first malaise can never be remedied,

Just eased a while. Much Nature cures no doubt,
But when she flags, the doctor helps her out;
And if she’s pressed (Disease’s triumph clear),
The doctor’s art’s in vain: dire Death draws near.

Be Nature sage the doctor’s cure par excellence;
Conjecture is too risky for her governance.
The doctor’s clothes, his gold and pleasantries,
There work no no cure, but proper remedies.

I curse loquacious doctors for their lies:
They kill the man who’d live, save him who’d died.
Many physicians are foes of the sick
And fail to study what is wrong but, quick,

Prescribe a cure, and often kill outright.
Others, when wayward Nature hides from sight,
Wavers which course to take, caught in between.
The doctor, trusted for his graver mien,

Heeds warnings, but should not be too discreet.
In judging urine there’s a twin deceit:
What warms up in the cold chills in the heat.

Why claim there is a fetal girl in growth,
When, from the urine, it could well be both?
A doctor doubting a disease’s base
With reason tests what he should term the case.

The edition and translation of this poem appears in Donald Yates’ article “A Fourteenth-Century Latin Poem on the Art of the Physician,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol.54:3 (1980)

Click here to learn more about Medicine in the Middle Ages



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