Before the age of television shows, movies, and the Internet people entertained one another with vibrant and exaggerated tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales, is a good example of this form of entertainment. The novel details the journey of a band of pilgrims, who engaged in a storytelling competition, as they travel toward the shrine of Thomas a Becket. These Middle Age storytellers varied as much as the stories, and consisted of a knight, physician, monk, and many more. In “the Prologue” the Physician is revealed as a con artist who cares more about himself than his patients.
The Physician was a medical doctor, who was responsible for taking care of the ill and disease stricken. “No one alive could talk as well as he did / On points of medicine and surgery…” (Chaucer 30). He was part of the rising middle class society and his garments that were “lined with taffeta” (Chaucer 31) made this assumption apparent.
During the Middle Ages taffeta was a material like silk, which was very expensive, so only the wealthy could afford it. To many he seemed to be a productive member of society, but appearances can be deceiving. People of the medical profession were looked upon with a certain respect; so many patients did not question what was prescribed. The Physician misused his title to take advantage of his patients’ faith.
He was revealed as a liar and a cheat. He was a partner with the druggist, to help each other build their wealth.
The reader can draw the appearance of his deceit in the following quote, “He gave the man his medicine then and there. / All his apothecaries in a tribe / Were ready with the drugs he would prescribe / And each made money from the other’s guile; / They had been friendly for a goodish while” (Chaucer 30). Chaucer describes these habits of the physician in order to allow the reader to paint a mental picture of his morals and character. Chaucer also brings the readers attention to the fact that the Physician “did not read the Bible very much” (31). Chaucer implies that the Physician is a sinner, who did not see an error in his dishonesty.
Many analysts believe that Chaucer was trying to portray certain qualities through the vivid descriptions of the characters’, such as in the following quote describing the physician; “In blood-red garments, slashed with bluish grey / And lined with taffeta …” (Chaucer 31). The reader could infer that the red represented his deceit of the people, whom he treated and the slash of bluish grey could represent his internal struggle to be honest. The color of a person’s wardrobe during the Middle Ages often showed their social status. The wealthy usually wore brightly colored garments and the lower class wore pale colors such as grey and black (“Middle Ages Clothing”). The blood-red garments could represent his wealth, and the grey shows that his wealth is tainted by his deception of the people that trusted him.
Various admirers believed that, Chaucer himself seemed to dislike the physician. John Gardner, a critic, claimed the Physician’s tale is an example of Chaucer’s intentionally “bad art”. Chaucer, so the theory runs, disliked the Physician because of his defrauding ways, and so gave him a bad tale in order to punish him.
Chaucer used sarcasm and irony to describe the physician and to show his dislike of him in the quote, “He was a perfect practicing physician” (Chaucer 30). The Physician may not be considered Chaucer’s best work, but it deserves its place with the rest of The Canterbury Tales and recognition for being the best of the worse.
Even though the time period has changed, it seems that people’s actions have not.
Even in today’s society some physicians are still corrupt, many being entangled in insurance and Medicare fraud. Every year more than an hundred physicians are charged with fraud but in most cases 57.4 percent have no action taken against them (“Insurance Fraud”). Because the lack of punishment many physicians continue to defraud their patients and insurance companies, but people today are becoming more aware and taking steps to protect their selves. The way that physicians during the Middle Ages practiced medicine is very different than today’s physicians, they no longer rely on horoscopes or the alignment of the planets (Chaucer 30) but one thing is still the same, some care only about their wealth.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1977.
Gardner, John. The Poetry of Chaucer. 1977, pp. 293-308. http://www.icg.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/physt/
“Insurance Fraud” http://www.insurancefraud.org/
“Middle Ages Clothing”http://www.learner.org/exhibits/middleages/clothing.html
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