Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period > The Medical Profession
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period.

§ 26. The Medical Profession.

The physician’s profession, about this time, was being disentangled, on the one hand, from that of the clergyman, with which of old it had been frequently combined, and, on the other, from the trade of the apothecary—a purveyor of many things besides drugs, who was more comfortably and fashionably housed in London 103  than was his fellow at Mantua—and from that of the barber, who united to his main functions those of dentist and yet others, announced by his long pole, painted red. 104  The pretensions of both physicians and surgeons to a knowledge of which they fell far short were still a subject of severe censure; 105  but little or nothing was said in or outside the profession against what was still the chief impediment to the progress of medical science—its intimate association with astrology. 106  The physician took every care to preserve the dignity which lay at the root of much of his power, attiring himself in the furred gown and velvet cap of his doctor’s degree, 107  and riding about the streets, like his predecessor in the Middle Ages, with long foot-cloths hanging down by the side of his horse or mule. The education of physicians was carried on much like that of lawyers, with care and comfort, and seems, at least sometimes, to have been deemed a suitable stage in the complete training of a gentleman. 108  The scientific and practical value of the medical training of the day is a theme beyond the purpose of this sketch. Medical treatment, in many respects, was old-fashioned in no flattering sense of the term; in the case of new diseases, it was savage; in the case of mental disease, barbarous—“a dark house and a whip.” 109    34

Note 103. See The Merry Wives, act III, sc. 3: “these lisping hawthorn-buds that … smell like Bucklersbury in simple time.” [ back ]
Note 104. On this subject, see Vatke, T., u.s. p. 172. A dentist-barber appears in Lyly’s Midas. [ back ]
Note 105. So, in the pious Joseph Halle’s The Chyrurgens Book. [ back ]
Note 106. An honest, though futile, attempt to distinguish between true and false, valuable and “frustrate,” astrology is made in Polimanteia, a curious tract printed at Cambridge in 1595. [ back ]
Note 107. Cf. The Alchemist, act 1, sc. 1, where Subtle takes care to appear in this costume. [ back ]
Note 108. Paul Hentzner (u.s. p. 31) asserts that in the fifteen colleges within and without the city of London “members of the young nobility, gentry and others, are educated, and chiefly in the study of physic; for very few apply themselves to that of the law; they are allowed a very good table, and silver cups to drink out of.” [ back ]
Note 109As You Like It, act III, sc. 2, ad fin. [ back ]

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