Title Background

The Practice of Medicine in Piers Plowman.

The Practice of Medicine in Piers Plowman.

The essay begins by noting the ubiquity of medical metaphors, language, and images in PPl (Contrition, Faith, and Conscience as surgeons; Poverty as a ‘leche’; Sire Penetrans-Domos as a physician-surgeon; references to the uses of plasters, purges, salves, ‘triacles’, etc.). Gasse then notes the prevailing trend in L criticism to dismiss the medical language in PPl as metaphorical, thereby perpetuating the “modern misconception that . . . medieval medical theory and practice are rooted in the metaphysical and the superstitious” (177). Pace such criticism, Gasse follows Joseph Ziegler in viewing physical and spiritual leechcraft in the Middle Ages as distinct, if overlapping, human practices. Gasse seeks to study the portrayal of medical practices and practitioners in PPl (mainly the B text) to “further our understanding of the context in which Langland wrote” (178). According to Gasse, L conveys an almost universally negative view of human medical practitioners and practices; the only positive statement about human leechcraft is to be found in a unique passage in the “problematic Z version of Piers Plowman in which Hunger states that he ‘defame(s) nat fysyk, for the science ys trewe’ (Z.7.260)” (184). In the poem, figures such as Peace (B.20) or Hunger (B.6) comment frequently on the untrustworthy and greedy nature of human medical practice when it does not involve healing the soul. Gasse argues further, with many examples, that the illnesses of the body in PPl are usually linked to a spiritual malaise, such as Envy’s palsy (B.5) or Haukyn’s reliance on a witch (B.14), and that poem demonstrates the inefficacies of pharmaceutical preparations like “treacle” or diapenidion in such cases. Further, in his speech in B.18, Christ condemns physicians such as the Doctor of Divinity or Penetrans-Domos who model their practices upon Satan rather than his own leechcraft. By way of contrast to such a negative view of medical practice, L deploys important positive images of the practice of healing the soul, which in turn remedies the body. Hunger (B.6), for instance, in takes the Galenic view in recommending temperance as a practice beneficial to both body and soul. The most important of these images, however, is the image of Christus Medicus that is developed as early as passus 1 when L “identifies love as the ‘leche of our lif'” (179). Through a series of amplifying images in pass?s 11, 15, 16, and 19 the identification of Christ with love is completed. Thus Christ and his salvific action (and the sacraments, which recreate that action in the contemporary situation) are shown as the best kind of healers. Gasse concludes by suggesting that the poem does not reveal L to be a believer in “simplistic faith-healing” or that medicinal intervention might contrary to the Divine plan (191). Rather, L seems to suggest that “if physicians are doctors of death in Piers Plowman, they are so by choice,” in so far as they choose, through ignorance, greed, or mendacity, to ignore the best practice in medicine: that spiritual healing must accompany physical practices (191).


Chaucer Review 39 (2004): 177-97.


Gasse, Rosanne