The Physician in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Personality

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  • 0:00 Characterization
  • 0:57 The Physician in the Prologue
  • 2:25 The Physician and His Tale
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' has often been praised for its vivid portrayal of characters representing a cross-section of late medieval English society. This lesson looks at the Physician and his characterization in the initial prologue, through his tale, and through responses to it.


Scholars have long disagreed about how the subtle characterizations of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales ought to be read. Are they slice-of-life snapshots, opening a window on the everyday people of a bygone age? Or are they savage caricatures, skewering what Chaucer saw as abuses in his society? Current consensus is that the portrayals of the travelers to Canterbury fall somewhere between these extremes. In the description of the Physician, as elsewhere, Chaucer takes a tone that is lightly satirical, poking fun at some medieval cultural norms and many universal human weaknesses.

The prologue of The Canterbury Tales introduces the diverse group of pilgrims who are on their way to Canterbury together. Their stated goal is to worship at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, but Chaucer suggests that many of them are also motivated by the fact that it's nice weather for a road trip.

The Physician in the Prologue

The Physician in a late medieval manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer portrays the Physician as well-educated and cunning, greedy, and a bit boastful. If the pilgrims have heard that there's ''none like him in this world, no competition / to speak of medicine and surgery'' (lines 412-413), they've probably heard it from the Physician himself. It's implied that he has been trained at a university, since he has knowledge of ancient medicine from Greek, Latin, and Arabic sources, as well as of recent treatises (429-434).

Chaucer builds his subtle satire of the Physician by sometimes using the same evidence both for his skills and for his negative characteristics. Following a balanced and restrained diet, for instance, is fully in accordance with medieval (and modern) theories about good health. Chaucer hints, though, that the Physician chooses this diet - which is ''greatly nourishing, as well as prudent'' - in part because he's stingy (435-437).

The Physician is clearly very knowledgeable about medical theory: he knows about both astrology and the influence of the stars on his patients, and about the four humors that were long believed to be uniquely balanced within each person's body (414-422). While the Physician may be genuinely skilled in diagnosis, though, Chaucer suggests that his medical advice is partly based on his own greed. He cooperates with apothecaries, or pharmacists, in prescribing expensive medicines that will bring profit to everyone except the patient (423-428). Such costly treatments might even include gold; as Chaucer wryly observes, ''Gold's a cordial, so the doctors say. / That's why he loved gold in a special way'' (443-444).

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