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Chaucer, medicine, physical and spiritual health


In the Canterbury Tales, the pilgrim Chaucer lists an impressive series of medical authors whom his fellow pilgrim the Physician is supposed to have read. As we continue past the General Prologue, we discover that these writers do not merely embellish the PHysician's claims to a well-rounded medical education: two are actually mentioned in the course of story-telling, though, oddly, not by the Physician, but by the Pardoner and Parson. These two pilgrims' references appear in tales more concerned with spiritual than physical healing and health, and indeed the Parson preaches on the "cure" of sins as a necessary part of the journey to "Jerusalem celestial." For his part, the Physician leaves citation of medical authorities to representatives of the Church and attempts to tell a "moral" tale that unintentionally calls into question his morality. The effect of his procedure is to make one suspect that a connection is being established between physical and spiritual health and doctors, and the comparison does not cease there: other pilgrims refer to physicians of the soul, and both physicians and surgeons give suspect advice in the pilgrim Chaucer's philosophical Tale of Melibee. Moreover, the pilgrims are traveling to Canterbury to thank St. Thomas à Beckett for helping them when they are sick, and, at the end of his tale, the Parson envisions the heavenly attainment of both physical and spiritual health. Thus, the whole matter of healing and the moral problems attendant upon healers provide a unifying theme for the Canterbury Tales, as various claimants compete for the position of true physician.