John of Arderne was the most famous doctor of Chaucer’s day. As well as practising his craft in Nottinghamshire and London, he may well have developed his skills on active service during the Hundred Years’ War. He wrote a number of treatises on general medicine and surgery, including these works on phlebotomy and on the cure of anal fistula, one of the deadliest operations in medieval surgery. Only the rich could afford doctors: Chaucer’s description in the General Prologue of his silken-clad Doctor of Physic who ‘lovede gold’ hints at how expensive they were. In fact, the Practica of Fistula in Ano not only discusses surgical matters, but also advises on how doctors should behave and what fees they should charge. Arderne recommends that a doctor should never take less than five pounds – more than most people earned in year.
The unusual frontispiece with which this copy begins shows a physician with a medicine box and ladle sitting within a herb garden. The rather rudimentary drawing of this picture and of the illustrations throughout the volume suggests a provincial origin. This manuscript has obviously been well used, and there are extensive annotations by early readers, including additions of medical recipes.