What did medieval doctors look like? (Google Penance)

Just today someone spent two minutes reading about Theodoric of York rather than getting the answer to their question, “What did medieval doctors look like?” This is an easy one:

The image above is a cleaned up version of the Physician’s portrait as it appears in the famous Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, written by that guy that hath a blog.

The Ellesmere portrait is a good example of how the traditional visual vocabulary overwhelmed Chaucer’s text. While Chaucer does mention the blue and red clothes that his Physician wore, he doesn’t describe his Physician as conducting urinalysis while on horseback. But medieval artists, when they wanted to draw a physician, used this stock image: a man holding up a vial of urine to look at it. The Ellesmere illustrator, when asked to draw a physician, uses the old standby, but adds the horse, since the pilgrims are supposed to be on horseback.*

The guy-holding-a-urine-flask image was so familiar that it could be used to make visual jokes with. From the same manuscript as the famous monkey butt-trumpet, I present you with a monkey doctor:**

Monkeys were a go-to for comedy in the Middle Ages, too. In this sense, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was a very medieval TV show. I don’t know why the monkey is treating a stork, though, or how a monkey gets urine from a stork. Until Google searches start bringing people with that question here, I’m under no obligation to find out, either.

UPDATE: If you’re looking for more information, see this page. It has many an illuminated urinal-wielding doctor and lots, lots more.

*Incidentally, this is why the portrait of Chaucer in the Ellesmere looks like a stubby dwarf. The illustrator copied another artist’s head-and-torso picture of Chaucer and put an out of proportion horse under it.
**I don’t want to become known as ‘that guy who always posts images from Yale MS 229,’ but thanks to a class I took some years ago, I have the whole thing saved to my hard drive, so it’s easy to mine for examples.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Karen

    Huh! Ran across your post while working on a linkspage on this subject. Great minds, and all that, I s’pose!

  • Jeni

    Perhaps the monkey-stork urine thing is an early pregnancy test? 😉

  • meli

    thanks for this! it’s not the first time i’ve visited your blog, but it is the first time i needed to know about medieval monkeys wearing doctors’ coats (due to a reference to them in a poem i’m working on). you don’t happen know of any ‘monkeys dressed /In doctors’ coats with glinting knives in paws’, do you?

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