That Time Petrarch Yelled at a Doctor for Dozens of Pages

by Jeroen Bouterse

I don’t know how much you know about Petrarch. My guess is that you know him as a poet, primarily for his sonnets. Maybe you associate him with early Italian humanism and its reinvigorated dedication to the wisdom of classical Antiquity. Or perhaps you think of him as someone who expressed transcendental truths about the soul and its searching and wandering nature.

All of this may be true. As of recently, however, I can’t help but think of him as that guy who spent dozens of pages (more than 80, in a modern printed edition) yelling at a physician.

Or yelling at all physicians, possibly. Petrarch is slightly abstruse about the extent to which he seeks to put down physicians in general, or some subclass of physicians, or this singularly annoying physician in particular.

Petrarch never set much store by physicians. He lived through the horrors of the Black Death, and seems to have concluded from the destruction caused by the Plague that medical professionals were as powerless as anyone against the will of God. When the pope in Avignon fell ill (with a different illness), Petrarch thought it prudent to advise him, in writing, against relying on his doctors. The doctors were none too pleased, and one of them must have written a rebuttal of Petrarch’s letter. It is to this doctor that Petrarch devoted what grew into four books of seething invective.

A small taste:

“Cease […] to infect people in good health with your leprosy and with the maladies of your ambition and avarice. You are a manipulator of your patients, an insincere and disgusting adulator, if I correctly judge your nature. In the hope of a vile little gain, you frequent the latrines of both popes and paupers. By contrast it is my custom to frequent verdant woods and solitary hills, desiring only knowledge or glory.” (I. 6)

Liberal and mechanical arts

In the paragraph quoted here, Petrarch sought to justify his intercession with the pope. For yes, all right, the pope had recovered from his illness; but no doubt, he would have done so even sooner if his physicians had been on the far shores of India. What started out as an argument about the lacking efficacy of medicine and the legitimacy of pointing that out, however, quickly developed into a disparagement of the status of medicine as a profession.

The immediate cause, as it appears from Petrarch’s response, was that his hated doctor had been so insolent as not merely to defend his own profession, but also strike back at Petrarch where it hurt: by attacking poetry. This was uncalled for, Petrarch sulked; after all, he hadn’t attacked medicine in verse. Now that the question of the relative status of medicine and poetry was on the table, however, Petrarch readily escalated it: what was at stake, to him, was the priority of the liberal or the mechanical arts.

The tradition of the liberal arts went back to classical Antiquity, though it was only in the early Middle Ages that a canon of seven arts had crystallized: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. As not all subjects fitted comfortably within the framework of these seven arts, some medieval authors had sought to expand upon them. John Scotus (9th century) suggested that there were seven ‘mechanical’ arts to parallel the liberal arts: crafts such as agriculture or metallurgy. Hugh of St Victor (12th century) had fleshed out a broader function of these ‘mechanical’ arts, and included medicine among them.

Petrarch, aware of this tradition, wielded it against his opponent: to him ‘mechanical’ was principally a term of abuse. “In the search for truth”, he sneered, “I admit every kind of learned man. I exclude only those who practice mechanical arts.” Without question, the liberal arts were above the baser ‘mechanical’ crafts; the more strongly Petrarch could frame medicine as a craft, the more freely he could kick it down. In his second invective, Petrarch expanded upon this motif to deride his opponent for having the nerve to write at all:

“Hurry, philosophers! Hurry, poets! Hurry, scholars! Hurry, everyone who writes books anywhere! Your business is at stake. A mechanic is writing books. […] We’re done for. Even cattle and stones will write.” (II.45)

Philosophers, poets, physicians

In his response to Petrarch, it seems that the physician had sought to reinforce the ties between medicine and philosophy. Those ties were strong already: in Antiquity, the physician Galen was at the same time a respected natural philosopher, and the Arabic writers who became eminent authorities in the later European Middle Ages (such as Averroes and Avicenna) were physicians-philosophers. Medicine was not a mere craft, but a learned and scholarly activity, intimately tied to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in general. The burden of proof was upon Petrarch to show that medicine was not philosophical.

Instead of proof, Petrarch had more abuse to hurl at his opponent. No, he said, clever syllogisms don’t make a philosopher; following that godless Averroes doesn’t make a philosopher. The bottom line was that a practitioner of a mechanical art could never be a philosopher:

“How can I believe that you are a philosopher, when I know you are a mercenary mechanic? I gladly repeat this term, since I know that no other reproach stings you more. I often call you a mechanic, not by chance but by choice; and I call you a second-rate one, to cause you more pain. […] By now, others may be calling you a philosopher. But I shall not consider you a philosopher, no matter how many ‘methods’ you cram into every line you write.” (II.89)

Undisputed between Petrarch and the physician was that the title of ‘philosopher’ was worth striving after. But what, precisely, was worthy of the name ‘philosophy’? The physician had made a stab at Petrarch by wielding the authority of the respected philosopher Boethius against poets, who in his Consolation of Philosophy wrote how philosophy sent away the Muses. In the Middle Ages, philosophy was seen as requiring clear, methodical and responsible reasoning. Within the trivium, the highest art was logic, a discipline in which Petrarch’s opponent seems to have found him lacking.

Petrarch, indeed, had a view of wisdom that involved less logic and more rhetoric; less methodical and strict thinking, more imagery and poetry. We may discern here the beginnings of a humanistic perspective in which language is more than just a vehicle for thought. It has value and beauty of its own. It has its own power aside from its content – power which we may see Petrarch as testing here, by verbally eviscerating his opponent. That at least is my most charitable reading.

In this reading, Petrarch’s attack, vile though it was, had everything to do with his identity as a poet, a learned man, and a spiritual being – with precisely the things he has become famous for, as the first great writer of the Italian Renaissance. By driving medicine out of philosophy, Petrarch was making room for something else to replace it.

The good life

Philosophy, by all accounts, included ethics. In the third book of his invective, Petrarch dealt with the claim that medicine had something to teach us about living well. According to the physician, medicine helps us live well, and the liberal arts serve to help medicine do that. Speaking well, then, is ancillary to living well. This became, to Petrarch, the ultimate issue: “O mechanic, if you can prove to me that medicine teaches us to live well, then the arts will justly serve medicine because it insures what all the rest aspire to.” (III.151)

Of course, medicine couldn’t teach this. As a mechanical art, it concerned the body, not the soul. Evidently, the noble art of rhetoric would never be subordinate to it:

“I come to the crux of our debate. I say that even if you enslave all the arts, however free, as servants of your humble and mercenary trade, because they are useful and necessary to your goal – and I don’t know what justifies this – then rhetoric will never be your servant.” (III. 155)

Rather than claiming the art of rhetoric and eloquence for its own, medicine had better know its place and be completely mute. It did not serve its patients by long speeches. In fact, those speeches only enabled it to hide its many failures: through eloquent oratory, physicians might try to shift the blame for the deaths they caused onto their patients. It was all empty words. Driving the motif of speech and silence to its extremes – speech befitting the philosopher or poet, silence the mechanical arts and therefore the physician – Petrarch now cried out for “some friend of the republic [to] do what nature left undone. Let him cut off your tongue.” (III. 161).

In the fourth and final book, Petrarch tied his own solitary lifestyle to his attack against medicine. Apparently, the physician had attacked Petrarch for his solitude. Petrarch was unsurprised that the profit-seeking class of physicians felt itself naturally drawn to city life: “hating solitude is typical of a mechanic” (IV. 177). Petrarch’s solitude had been more spiritually and socially beneficial to him than the physician could imagine, he boasted: “no one has shown me his urine, but many great people have intimately revealed the secrets of their souls. My wishes came true. I was dear to illustrious people, and unknown to the masses.” (IV. 196) This is a thinly veiled challenge, and it may remind us of what started the row in the first place: here are two different kinds of scholars vying for the ear and favor of popes and princes.

In these four books, Petrarch seems to take care never to construct a sustained and structured argument in favor of anything – every sentence is just another insult, or the same insult another time; just pages and pages of screaming abuse. Yet, slowly but surely, he is making a point: there is a new kid on the block, a new model of thinking about the relation between language and life; a new ideal of scholarship and of philosophy; or, in even more anachronistic terms, a second culture. Other humanists would continue to make this point, even if they found more dignified ways to express it. The Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati, for instance, would write a witty but respectful book about the priority of law over medicine (in response to a certain Bernard of Florence who had systematically argued the opposite case). But if you ask me, it started here, with Petrarch yelling at a doctor.



Franceso Petrarca, ‘Invectives against a Physician’ in: Petrarca, Invectives. Edited and translated by David Marsh. Harvard University Press: Cambridge (Mass.) 2003, p. 2-179.