Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Doctor Rabelais Part IV: Rabelais on women and doctors

“When I speak of women,” said the doctor, “I speak of a sex so fragile, so variable, so changeable, so inconstant, and so imperfect . . . that Plato, you will recall, was at a loss where to class them. . . . For nature has placed in their bodies . . . certain humors, brackish, nitrous, boracious, acrid, mordant, shooting, and bitterly tickling . . . by which the entire feminine body is shaken . . . all senses ravished . . . all thought thrown into confusion . . . sometimes so violent that the woman is thereby deprived of all other senses and powers of motion as if she had suffered from heart failure, syncope, epilepsy, apoplexy, something like death.”

Some critics have commented that in this passage Rabelais is displaying his intimate knowledge of the “symptoms of uterine hysteria.”

In the “moral comedy” of He Who Married a Dumb Wife, Rabelais tells the story of the husband who wanted his wife to be able to talk, so the doctor operated on her tongue. As she recovered her speech, she talked so much that the man asked for a remedy to make her silent. The doctor replied that he had many remedies to make women talk but none to make them keep silent, so the only remedy he knew was to render the husband deaf. This achieved, the wife found she was talking in vain and went mad. When the doctor came asking for his fee the man could not hear him, so the doctor threw a powder on the husband’s back that made him a fool. At this point the fool of a husband and the crazy wife banded together and proceeded to beat up the doctor, leaving him half dead.

In a passage of medical interest, Rabelais claims that Hippocrates has compared the practice of medicine to a battle, or farce, with three characters: the patient, the physician, and the disease; and that Hippocrates and other authorities advised the physician to pay attention to his “gestures, bearing, glance, touch, countenance, manners, personal appearance, facial cleanliness, clothing, beard, hair, hands, mouth, nails . . . just as he were about to play some amorous role or enter into the martial lists to combat a powerful enemy.” He should consider providing himself with an expensive robe with elegant sleeves. He should know that “peevish, grouchy, crabby, gruff, and severe mien on the part the physician tends to give the patient the blues, while a jovial, placid, gracious, open, and pleasing countenance cheers him up. So he should avoid anything that in the least would serve to make him sad.”

Nor should a physician be negligent of his own health, but follow the injunction “physician heal thyself,” just as Galen, who was also always careful to keep himself in health, “for it is hard to have any faith in a physician’s ability to look after the health of others, when he is careless of his own health. For health is our life . . . and without health life is not life . . . no longer livable . . . but a languishing thing . . . the image of death.”



  1. Putman, Samuel, ed. The Portable Rabelais. The Viking Press; 477, 486, 523, 532.



Sections  |  Literary Vignettes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.