Medical Responses

  • John Aberth
Part of the The Bedford Series in History and Culture book series (BSHC)


Although doctors enjoyed a considerable amount of prestige in medieval urban communities by the fourteenth century, they generally did not fare well at the hands of medieval chroniclers of the Black Death, who accused them of cowardice, impotence, and, above all, greed. Such complaints were not specifically related to the Black Death; rather, doctors were often the butt of satire and objects of scorn in the popular literature of the later Middle Ages. But the Black Death sharp-ened these complaints. One of the harshest critics was the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, who complained that “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medi-cine [physic], or the art of astrology. To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false.”1 In Avignon, however, Louis Sanctus charged doctors with refusing to visit the sick even for large sums (Document 7). Other commentators, such as Boccaccio (Document 6), John VI Kantakouzenos (Document 8), and Agnolo di Tura (Document 17), simply argued that physicians and medicine were powerless in the face of plague, although Boccaccio qualified this with the observation that many quacks had lately entered the profession and that the disease was perhaps incurable or too new to be treated properly. Even the best known doctor of the day, Gui de Chauliac, physician to the pope and a respected surgeon, indicted his own profession during the Black Death (Document 14).


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  1. 1.
    Matteo Villani, Cronica, ed. Giuseppe Porta, 2 vols. (Parma: Fondazione Pietro Bembo, 1995), 1:13.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Timothy Kircher, “Anxiety and Freedom in Boccaccio’s History of the Plague of 1348,” Letteratura Italiana antica, 3 (2002): 329–31.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Partially translated in The Black Death, ed. Rosemary Horrox (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 177–82.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (New Yo: Free Press, 1983), 104–17; idem, Doctors and Medicine in Medieval England, 1340–1530 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 168–69.Google Scholar

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© Bedford/St. Martin’s 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Aberth

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