Seminar Ten

Profession (I): Medicine and Literature

One of the three holy men was in the habit of using hot spices for his colds… one day as they lay asleep, with this one between the other two,… the queen of heaven came with two maidens: one carrying an electuary, the other a small rod of gold. Our Lady used the rod to place some of the potion in the mouth of the first one. The maidens moved on to the one in the middle. ‘No’, said Our Lady, ‘He is his own doctor, pass on to the third’….

Those who should heal their soul with heartfelt repentance and torment of the flesh degenerate into physicians and healers of the body’. Did St Agnes do this when she answered our lord’s messenger who brought ointment from God to heal her breasts and said ‘Medicinam carnalem copori meo nunquam adhibui‘- that is, ‘I have never used bodily medicine’?

Ancrene Wisse [early C13th Guide for Anchoresses, trilingually transmitted throughout the English Middle Ages], ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester, 1959, repr. Exeter 1985), Part VI, Penance. (pp. 12-13)

The discourses and practices of medieval medicine unite body and soul in a number of ways seldom embraced in modern medical practice, and this is one of the factors that make medieval medical thought of considerable interest for literary study as well as for the more immediately obvious discipline of social history. A different human body is of course in question: one chiefly to be understood as an economy of fluids and a humoural system. One justification for medieval literature was a ‘hygenic’ one- listening to texts and stories could have the therapeutic effect of re-balancing the humors, and so ‘re-create’ audiences (an elegy or consolatio, such as Chaucer delicately offers John of Gaunt on the death of his duchess Blanche, could conceivably have literal healing power in the psycho-physiology of loss and mourning). The Virgin Mary is the highest ranking of a vast number of heavenly healers and intercessors: therapeutic visits to saints’ shrines are the heart of a vast literature of pilgrimage and miracle stories. A notable cult concerned with obstetrics is that of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who became an important patron of childbirth, with texts of her life sometimes placed upon the bodies of women in labor or read aloud over them. Monasteries and hospitals were closely related institutions. Although the medicine practised by women in particular is sometimes represented in malign form as a suspect art of potions and aphrodisiacs practised by elderly healers (Dame Sirith, Thessala in Chrétien’s Cligès), nunneries in fact carried out a great deal of nursing and health care, as is testified by different kinds of documents (such as the Anglo-Norman rules for the sisters at the hospital associated with St Alban’s abbey, for instance). A chief duty of hospitals was the observance of the liturgy, not only on the part of the staff of religious and semi-religious, but by the patients, as far as their conditions permitted.

The technical and professional literature of medieval medicine is huge and has a complex vernacular as well as a Latin history: medical treatises on surgery, gynaecology, and obstetrics were frequently translated for instance. Many works on the diseases of women are associated with the figure of Trotula, possibly a woman healer or doctor associated with the earliest medieval medical university, Salerno. Questions of authorship, audience and use of vernacular medical texts are raised with particular sharpness in the case of works on the diseases or ‘secrets’ as they are often called, of women: we look at these through the opening positions of two Anglo-Norman treatises on this topic.

Soul and body medicine shared the language of treatment and healing, and confessional discourse is very largely created with medical metaphors for much of the Middle Ages. Remedies are offered for each sin, in the shape of its opposing virtue, or of an aspect of Christ’s suffering in the passion. The thorough-going ability of such discourse to construct medieval selves is given eloquent testimony in a penitential treatise by a layman, Henry, Duke of Lancaster (father of Chaucer’s ‘White Lady’, the duchess Blanche), d. 1396. His Livre des seyntz medicines gives testimony (if anything, still more anguished than that of Sir Gawain’s mortified distaste for the flesh’s ‘stains of sin’ at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) to an abjected sinning corporeal self and to the powerful and highly nuanced discourse of the interior made possible by the linking of disease and sin. Chaucer himself is of course another layman who wrote a penitential treatise–The Parson’s Tale–and who apparently retracted much of his life’s literary work in response to having done so (see the Retractiouns at the end of The Canterbury Tales). Equally powerful is Chaucer’s linking of soul and body languages in the Physician’s and Pardoner’s Tale (including, particularly, Harry Bailey’s responses). Herman of Valenciennes’ deployment of a sin-laden and inadequate narrator throughout his account of the lives of Mary and Jesus is more complex than it may at first appear because of the virtual power ascribed to narrative in medieval medical theory: the narrator’s cure is the composition of the Virgin’s life.


  1. Herman de Valenciennes, extract from The Romance of God and his Mother (Li Romanz de Dieu et de sa mere): photocopied text: translation on email.
  2. The Diseases of Women: Two Prologues: texts in excerpt, translation on email.
  3. Henry, Duke of Lancaster (d. 1396), The Book of Holy Medicines (Le Livre des seyntz medicines). One section marked for Translation: translation of rest on email


  1. Glending Olson, ‘The Hygenic Justification’, ch. 2 of his Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982).
  2. Monica H. Green, ‘The Possibilities of Literacy and the Limits of Reading: Women and the Gendering of Medical Literacy’, in her Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts (London and Vermont: Ashgate, 2000). Whole book on reserve.
  3. Catherine Batt, ‘”De cette mordure vient la mort dure”: Perspectives on Puns and their Translation in Henry, Duke of Lancaster’s Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines.’ (forthcoming:made available through the kindness of Dr. Batt).


A report on Herman de Valenciennes’ and Henry of Lancaster’s narrator figures in light of a reading of Olson and Batt.
A discussion opener on audience (using Green and the two Diseases of Women texts)


  • Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (London and New York; Cornell UP, 1990).
  • Cadden, Joan, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Natural Philosophy, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993: pprbk, 1995).
  • Carolus-Barré, L., ‘Un nouveau parchemin amulette et la légende de sainte Marguerite-patronne des femmes en couches’, Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (1979), 256-75.
  • Hunt, Tony, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth Century England (Cambridge and Wolfeboro N.H.:D. S. Brewer, 1990).
  • Jacquart, Danielle, and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages(Princeton N.J.: Princeton UP, 1988).
  • Kealy, E.J., Medieval Medicus: A Social History of Anglo-Norman Medicine (London and Baltimore, 1981).
  • Larson, Wendy R., ‘Who is the Master of this Narrative? Maternal Patronage of the Cult of St Margaret’, in Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2003), pp. 94-104.
  • McCracken, Peggy, ‘Women and Medicine in Old French Narrative’, Exemplaria 5.2 (1993), 293-63.
  • Rawcliffe, Carole, Medicine for the Soul: The Life, Death and Resurrection of an English Hospital: St Gile’s, Norwich 1249-1550 (Stroud: Sutton, 1999).
  • Rubin, Stanley, Medieval English Medicine (Newton Abbot and New York, 1974).
  • Voigts, Linda Ehrsam, ‘What’s the Word? Bilingualism in late medieval England’, Speculum71 (1996), 813-26. [primarily concerned with Middle English medical texts, this is an important study of language in medieval medical works, with many implications for literary texts as well as for technical treatises.]