Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA

In October 1533, the Bishop of Paris, a fellow by the name of Monseigneur Jean du Bellay, was on his way to Rome to receive his cardinal’s hat when, as he was travelling through Lyon, he was suddenly struck with terrible pains in his hips and buttocks. To be honest I think anyone would have ended up in pain if they’d been bounced around in a 16th century coach being driven on rough 16th roads.

Anyway, the bishop was in a good deal of pain and he ordered the coachman to stop at the next inn. When the coach finally stopped, the bishop, by now screaming with the pain, was carried from the coach to the nearest inn.

The innkeeper sent a message to the local teaching hospital, which like most hospitals in France at the time was called the Hotel Dieu, and asked them to send a doctor to take a look at his unhappy visitor.

The doctor who responded to this call, looked pretty outlandish even by the standards of 16th century France. He wore a fur edged robe and a skull cap decorated with a golden scarab. He was exceptionally merry looking and his name was Francois Rabelais.

Rabelais, who was the local lecturer in anatomy but also an exceptionally good doctor, immediately diagnosed sciatica. He probably realised that the Bishop’s condition hadn’t been improved by his being jolted and bounced around in a coach and so he wisely prescribed some rest and, since patients then and now usually like to feel that their doctor is doing more than giving them sensible advice, he handed over a small jar of balm which he had in his bag. He then demanded a fee of 10 gold coins. The French had not then introduced the Louis d’or so he would expect to be paid in doubloons. Each coin weighed about a quarter of an ounce and an ounce of gold was worth around £2.50, so 10 gold coins would be worth about £6 in modern money. But £6 back in the middle of the 16th century was a different thing – probably worth about £1000.

The Bishop nearly fainted with horror at this.

‘That’s unjustifiable!’ he protested. ‘You’ve been here only moments!’

‘Ah,’ said Rabelais, ‘I’m charging you £100 for my time and the balm and £900 for being able to tell you what’s wrong with you.’

And thus was coined an apothegm which has since been used countless times by doctors, lawyers, portrait painters, entertainers and everyone else who ever charges big fees for services which don’t seem to take very long to perform.

In fact, Rabelais didn’t take any money from the bishop. Instead, he told the Bishop that he would relinquish the fee, and accompany the Bishop to Rome as his personal medical attendant, if the Bishop would arrange for his young girlfriend, Roberte Vimeux, to be released from the convent where she was incarcerated. Needless to say Ms Vimeux wasn’t at all keen on becoming a nun but had been put there so that she was safely out of reach.

The Bishop didn’t spend long thinking about this. He thought it a tremendous idea. He would save himself ten Louis and be able to travel to Rome with his own doctor. And so the deal was done. The young novice was released from the nunnery and the lovers were reunited.

What the Bishop did not know, of course, was that his new doctor was, using the pen name Alcofribas Nasier (an anagrammatical pseudonym which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue) the author of a hugely successful book about a rather raunchy and naughty character called Pantagruel. Moreover, the book was so rude and bawdy that it was bound in such a way that it looked like a Bible or a prayer book, thereby ensuring that those who read it could do so without running the risk of being excommunicated. Rabelais became enormously rich writing a series of novels about Pantagruel.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2018

Taken from Life on the Edge – the fifth of Vernon Coleman’s diaries.