Review: the Major Surgery Of Guy De Chauliac, a 14th century Surgeon’s Guide

the Major Surgery Of Guy De Chauliac
the Major Surgery Of Guy De Chauliac by Leonard D. Rosenman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a terrible defect in my education that I do not read Latin–especially now that I am involved with research for my series based on medieval history. Even many of the general texts that translate passages in line with the text then provide lengthy footnotes in Latin! So I am thrilled to find complete works like this one, a seminal 14th century medical text, in translation.

Guy de Chauliac was the personal physician of Pope Clement IV at Avignon, and his Chirurgia Magna was published originally in 1363. I’m hoping to learn more about the relationship between the pope and his physician as my research progresses, and in particular, I’m curious how a surgeon–even an accomplished one like de Chauliac–becomes physician to the pope. The French translator of the present volume suggests de Chauliac may have treated the future pope when he was merely a monk, and then was summoned on his rise to the papacy in 1342. He apparently was elevated to cheif physician in the plague year of 1348.

During the 14th century, there were three recognized classes of medical men (yes, almost entirely men–leaving aside the midwives and wise women who acted as doctors in many villages): physicians, surgeons, and barbers. Physicians were university trained in places like Paris, Salerno and Bologna and were famed as diagnosticians, often relying on urine samples to determine the balance of a man’s humors before recommending a regimen of herbs and other treatments based on the humoral theory of medicine. Many people with some historical knowledge are familiar with the theory of humors, and imagine that all doctors applied it. Alas, it was reserved to the educated few. The rest had to make do (shudder!) with empirical knowledge, experience and hands-on training.

The barber (or barber-surgeon) was the lowest of the three classes–and my personal specialty. He performed bleedings, often under physician’s orders, certain undignified and simple operations (like cutting for gall stones), and amputations, as well as pulling teeth.

Guy de Chauliac fell into the middle range, that of the surgeon. Surgeons might be university educated, but generally had a practicum with a master surgeon, assisting with operations and wound management before attaining mastery of their own. De Chauliac displays his own education when he opens with remarks about theory, references the Roman anatomist Galen (whose works were still considered vital), and quotes from the works of other learned doctors.

To me, the most interesting part of the work is detailed diagnostic information, organized by the afflicted part, giving a description of symptoms and recommended treatments. He takes the reader (presumed to be a surgical student or other medical professional) step by step through a variety of procedures like tending dislocations or performing trephination. It’s not for the faint of heart. . .but it is very informative about the specific methods of the medieval doctor, from the useful and practical (as in describing several types of sutures for different purposes) to the odd, as in treating edema by gargling with oil of violets.

Recommended for anyone seeking a strong understanding of 14th century medicine.

View all my reviews

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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2 Responses to Review: the Major Surgery Of Guy De Chauliac, a 14th century Surgeon’s Guide

  1. Pingback: The Sekrit Truth about me and 5-star Reviews | E. C. Ambrose

  2. Pingback: Elisha Daemon Launch Day! | E. C. Ambrose

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