Doctors’ Orders: The Role of the Medic in a Twelfth-Century Saints’ ‘Life’

Barbara Hargreaves reflects on saintly suffering and medical failures in twelfth-century religious works about saints.

Mabel of Stotsfield, a nun at the priory at Chicksands in the twelfth century, was, one day, sent on an errand to the kitchen by her prioress.[1] Rushing to obey her superior, she entered the kitchen in a hurry and tripped on a piece of wood hidden under the straw on the floor. Mabel fell badly, dislocating her ankle and causing her foot to swell so much that her shoe had to be cut from her foot. The nuns tried all sorts of remedies, including traction and applying plaster but nothing worked, and Mabel’s foot remained black, causing her increasing pain for over two years. The doctor attended, determined that there was no hope of a cure and that the foot should be amputated. Mabel declined this advice and was offered last rites instead. This too she declined but asked instead that a candle be made on her behalf to be offered to St Gilbert of Sempringham and that she and the candle be carried to the church. There she and the candle were placed before the altar, Mabel with her foot wrapped in a cloth of Gilbert’s. She fell asleep in the church and in a dream was visited by the saint himself who told her to stand up. When she awoke she had been healed.

When doctors appear in twelfth-century religious works describing the life and activities of a saint, their failure to find a cure often precedes a miraculous healing. Not written as biographical, nor necessarily historical, these very popular saints’ Lives were principally intended to describe their subject as being holy. As miraculous healing was one of the signs of sanctity, the failure of human medicine, in the form of the doctor, was a necessary prerequisite to the divine healing that followed. In short, in these accounts, the doctor was set up to fail.

My comparative analysis of twelve saints’ Lives written about near contemporary English saints in the twelfth century shows that doctors appeared in ten of them with forty-five separate mentions. While this is a small number, it should be borne in mind that the twelve saints’ Lives considered represent a majority of such works written about contemporary saints in England at that time. The doctor was most commonly named as medicus, although there are several references to physicians and one to a surgeon. The title ‘doctor’ was used only to refer to learned men, not medical men. In some of the Lives’ the abbot of the monastery was called medicus – a reference to his responsibility for the cure of souls.

Bloodletting from Le Régime du Corps: British Library, Sloane 2435, f. 11v (C13).

When the non-medical references to doctors are removed, along with two cases where the medicus is either the patient or the writer of the Life, there remain thirty-four instances in which the doctor is engaged in medical activity. Of these, twenty are accounts in which the doctor either fails or has his advice ignored. Some of these episodes move beyond showing the doctor as being merely inept and portray him as being greedy, self-interested and derelict in his duties.

An example of this is seen in Gerald of Wales’ account of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, which is particularly disparaging to doctors.[2] Gerald recounts the story of an injured knight who was ‘not healed by the expensive aid of doctors [whose treatment] was more costly and burdensome than beneficial or productive.’ Worse, when the doctors gave up hope of a cure and no more money was forthcoming, they abandoned the knight saying that no-one would be able to heal him, effectively leaving their patient to die untended and moving on to seek richer pickings.

While Gerald’s anti-doctor rhetoric shows his opinion of the profession, not all of the writers were so disparaging. Sometimes, the doctors acted in good faith and with skill, but were not able to restore their patients to health. In the Life of Christine of Markyate the reader is told that ‘experienced doctors were sent for and to the best of their powers they practiced their craft with medicines, blood-letting and other kinds of craft.’[3] The doctor here is shown in a positive light, but, like Gerald of Wales’ disparaged doctor, he too is doomed to fail, setting the stage for miraculous intervention and divine healing. The message to the reader of the Life is that they too should put their faith in God rather than in worldly thinks.

Not infrequently, the doctors were simply ignored. Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, a man whose Life recounts he suffered significant ill health in his last years, in his final illness ‘gave greater weight to his own counsels than to those of the physicians, and for God’s sake despised the cure of the body and considered in all ways the health of the soul’.[4] This included him spitting out medications and refusing pain-relief. The picture of the suffering saint turning from worldly cure and disregarding their mortal body is seen commonly in the Lives. Twelfth-century Western monastic thought was most concerned about the corruptible and fallen nature of human flesh, and the ability of a saint to turn from this to maintain a focus on the spiritual component of their person was a necessary feature of their sanctity. Having the saint ignoring the doctors’ advice and treatment was a key way in which the writer could demonstrate this feature to his reader.

Further, the accounts of suffering, enhanced by this disregard of medical advice, allowed the writer to describe how the saint was undergoing pre-mortem purgation; suffering in this life to reduce the purgatorial suffering he would experience in the next. For even a saint, as a member of humankind, was inevitably flawed and sinful. Such suffering was seen as a blessing. Waldef, Abbot of Melrose was so blessed: ‘He [God] wore out his beloved Waldef with a multitude of infirmities, racked him with pain, weakened him with sickness …’[5] Through such pain and suffering, the writer was able not only to show the saint as holy but also to depict him as an exemplar of steadfast faith and endurance, providing inspiration to the reader. In this scenario having a medical cure or relief from the pain would be entirely counter-productive to the purpose of the narrative, so once again the doctor had to fail or be ignored.

It appears then, that in the context of a twelfth-century saint’s Life and its attendant miracles, doctors had a small, but significant, role to play. In the main, they were not included for their medical skills but were used as a narrative device. Their failure allowed the writer to introduce the miraculous, thus emphasising the supremacy of heavenly medicine and healing over inadequate worldly wisdom. The frequent inability of the doctors in the Lives to effect a cure meant that the saint suffered, a necessary feature of twelfth-century sainthood, and a visible representation of the purgatorial agonies that mankind could expect. The whole purpose of writing a saint’s Life was to show its subject as a saint, and in this doctors and worldly medicine proved a valuable tool to the writer. In such a work, it is no surprise that medics are included in the narrative mainly to fail, for in a saint’s Life it is an unequal contest between holy saint and professional doctor, between heavenly cure and the imperfect medicine of this world.

[This essay is adapted from a paper of the same name given at the Exeter University Medical Humanities Conference, June 2019. The author acknowledges that the conference was supported through sponsorship by the Society for Allied Philosophy.]


Barbara Hargreaves is a retired nurse and midwife who is currently in the final year of a PhD at Durham University where she is researching healthcare narratives in twelfth-century religious works.

[1]Liber Sancti Gileberti’, in The Book of Saint Gilbert ed. R. Foreville and trans. G. Keir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 287.

[2] Gerald of Wales, The Life of Saint Hugh of Avalon, trans. Richard M. Loomis (New Jersey: Evolution Publishing, 2014), pp. 83 and 91.

[3] The Life of Christine of Markyate, trans. G. H. Talbot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 123.

[4] Walter Daniel, The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx, trans. F. M. Powicke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 49-50.

[5] Jocelin of Furness, ‘The Life of St. Waldef, Abbot of Melrose, by Jocelin of Furness’, trans. G. J. McFadden (unpublished D.Phil. dissertation, Columbia University, 1952), p. 301.

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