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This is a follow up to Medieval Medicine in a Fantasy Setting?.

What could you call a medical doctor in a medieval/fantasy setting? I'm thinking along the lines of how an "alchemist" is more appropriate in a medieval/fantasy than a "chemist".

So is there an equivalent setting-appropriate term for "doctor"?

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8 Answers

Medical practice as we now thing of it was not extant until the 17th Century; the various providers of medical treatment included a variety of individuals with various titles. Some of the trends

Laech, Physicker, Leech: Generally, a practitioner of Roman medicine. Leaches, salves, ointments, unguents, and caurterization, perhaps some stitching of lacerations (via thread or ant heads)

Barber: Bloodletting, some surgery, dentistry, and often potions. Plus hair and beard trimming.

Chirurgeon/Chiurgeon, Surgeon: Bone setting, bullet and arrow removal, cauterization, possibly some potions.

Chymist/Chemist/Alchemist, Pharmacist: Toxins, drugs, some antidotes, potions.

Wisewoman, Geriffa, Witch: potions, herbs, ritual.

Clergy, Friars & Monastics: prayers, herbs, some Roman medicine, Ritual.

Wife or Mother: most nursing care was simply done by the women of the house.

Note that clergy in Historical Europe had various titles.... but turning to clergy was a common resort, and many clergy of both Roman and Greek pagan faiths, as well as a surprising number of Catholic Clergy, had some practical knowledge of healing. Hospital orders often included monks or friars with backgrounds in the various other fields.

The one title that was almost unheard of: Medical Doctor. Until the renaissance, almost no colleges taught medicine. Doctor, being an academic title for one who has completed their licentiate/masters and fellowship (post masters instructional period), meant 10+ years of study in university (often from age 14). Even when medicine was taught, it was taught as part of a general arts degree, rather than a specific subject, and from Roman sources. With the early renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic ban on autopsy and dissection became far less often enforced, allowing many colleges to add Surgery to their list of specialties offered, and the Reformation lead also to such training being better than mere apprenticeship.

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The point remains that you're seeing them through modern eyes. To the medieval mind, your "army medic" was crude and ignorant, whereas the qualified physician was a man of letters, learning and insight, probably armed with a translation of a classical text. You may well be right that the former was more effective, (although I don't think we have much direct evidence of that) but that's not at all how they were perceived. Just sayin'. –  Dave Hallett Nov 23 '10 at 8:32
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Physician. It's old-fashioned enough to avoid sounding modern, but not so archaic as to sound needlessly quirky. Actual 1100AD-1400AD vocabulary would be Middle English, a much more Germanic language which predates the Shakespearean English that we think of as "ye olde English"; as such, the "genuine" mediaeval words for "doctor" would sound out of place in a roleplaying game.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare refers to a practitioner of medicine as a "doctor of physic":

DOCTOR. Therein the patient
    Must minister to himself.
MACBETH. Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it.

Surgeon is another good alias. You could also use healer, although in roleplaying games this often suggests magical ability.

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Upvoted for the most practical approach to the problem. You want something that sounds good and medieval, without being nearly unpronounceable or, as you say, quirky. "Physician" fits the bill perfectly. –  thesunneversets Nov 22 '10 at 20:27
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@Graham: As did Gygax, of course. –  Jonathan Drain Dec 12 '10 at 11:23
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I just remembered seeing a barber-surgeon career when flipping through Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which served the purpose of being a medical professional or sorts.

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The word for "doctor" in Old English is læce, i.e. "leech". It was in use at least as early as 900 AD, according to the OED, and persisted into the modern age, although by then it had become largely pejorative.

Here's a very useful article on what medieval medicine was really like and why it was more sophisticated than is often imagined.

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A monk.

(Excuse the shortness of the answer. The other answers have made some excellent suggestions, but it's important, I think, to consider the religious angle. In medieval times, an illness was considered spiritual, as well as physical. To get healed, then, you went to a priest, and monasteries became the first hospitals.)

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... then you're kind of going down the Cleric healer path, and I'm fishing for a strictly medical (non-magical) healer of sorts. –  LeguRi Nov 21 '10 at 19:41
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@LeguRi Well, that really depends on your system and setting and whether all religious people can do miracles. Historically, many monks were medical healers, hence why so many modern hospitals are "St. Whatever Hospital". I don't recall reading anything about monastic hospitals employing Cure Light Wounds in our 12th century. ;) (Incidentally, monasteries and their "herbal medicine" is also where most of our flavoured liquors came from.) –  SevenSidedDie Nov 22 '10 at 1:24
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@LeguRi if you want to have a medieval medicine separate from religion and mysticism, you'll have to look at another world. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 22 '10 at 11:17
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I second the Chirurgeon suggestion. However, I propose you generate several names, one for each culture or social group the PCs will interact with. It's fun, for example, throwing slang names at players and letting them figure out the meanings or references.

I also doubt peasants would use the same lingo as educated nobles.

Also consider how the doctors would address each other and how they'd prefer to be addressed. That'll get you a different set of names you can use for more game flavour.

For example, there could be schools of medicine based on specialties. And while doctors would refer to each specialty by name, commoners would not make the differentiation (or know how to) and refer to them all as "Blood Letters" or somesuch.

Further, in a fantasy setting you add the element of healing magic. Shamans, priests, druids, strange monster abilities, magic items.

So, perhaps there are those who prefer the study of anatomy and critical thinking and learning over the strange and unknowable aspects of magic. This might create two factions in your campaign: the scholars who scoff at "Witch Doctors" and use derogatory names accordingly, and those with faith who think study of anatomy, surgery and such is vulgar and done by misguided or heretical "Cutters."

A funny thought just came to me. I envision a city where the "Cutters" faction digs up fresh graves from church cemeteries to pursue their study, and "Barmy Preachers" storm in to animate the dead periodically so they can get them quickly back to their sanctified graves.

Funny or not, a faction conflict between chirurgeons and priests would be fertile ground for a setting.

Have you considered fictional names? For example, use a thesaurus to generate some keywords, then use an online translator to make the words fantastic and fictional sounding.

For example, doctor, surgeon, priest, healer, medic translated to Czech becomes lékaře, chirurg, kněz, léčitel, zdravotník for your campaign.

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I'm not going to mark this down, because it could well be the right answer for the OP's setting in terms of atmosphere, etc. But historically, a chirurgeon is a name for a surgeon, and surgeons were considered much inferior to physicians for most of the medieval period, although this began to change towards the end of the period. See Wikipedia. It depends how historical you want to be. –  Dave Hallett Nov 21 '10 at 19:59
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Some could be called "apothecaries". The term later took on the more narrow meaning of "pharmacist".

As I see here, they could be called exactly "doctors", or "medicine doctors", or "physicians", or maybe even "medics". The actual classification given on that link is

  1. Physicians
  2. Surgeons (or chyrurgeons, as said above)
  3. Barbers, who did common procedures such as teeth-pulling
  4. Apothecaries, the pharmacists of old
  5. Wise women, sort of "witch doctors", if you will. Also midwives, I guess.
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Although its provenance may be suspect, the word "chirurgeon" is appropriate — it's a Renaissance back-formation of "surgeon," which dates to the 13c.

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