The Physician

The Physician

by Noah Gordon


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Set against the superstition and splendor of the 11th century, the engrossing story of Rob J. Cole unfolds. A penniless orphan, Rob was blessed with a gift that, in the days of witchcraft, could send a man to the stake: he had the ability to sense the chill hand of death when it settled on the living. His skill quickened with the potency of knowledge, and he knew he was born to heal and to be a physician. His quest would take him from the rough roads of Britain to the sumptuous and corrupt courts of Persia and the school of the greatest healer of his time. Disguised as a Jew, toiling as a war surgeon in the conflicts of Eastern empires, he would be helped by mighty patrons and threatened by plague and the cruel prejudice of mullahs and clerics. And always, beside the pure flame of learning there burned a fierce passion — for the fiery–eyed beauty of a woman he could never leave.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780751503890
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publication date: 07/01/2001
Pages: 714
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 7.16(h) x 1.77(d)

About the Author

Noah Gordon has had outstanding international success . The Physician , now a major motion picture, has been called a modern classic, and booksellers at the Madrid Book Fair voted it “one of the 10 best-loved books of all time.” Shaman was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Both of these books, and five of the author’s other novels— The Rabbi, The Death Committee, The Jerusalem Diamond, Matters of Choice, and The Winemaker —are published in digital formats by Barcelona eBooks and Open Road Integrated Media. Gordon’s novel, The Last Jew , will also be published digitally in the near future. He lives outside of Boston with his wife, Lorraine.

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The Physician

By Noah Gordon


Copyright © 1986 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-6374-7



These were Rob J.'s last safe and secure moments of blessed innocence, but in his ignorance he considered it hardship to be forced to remain near his father's house with his brothers and his sister. This early in the spring, the sun rode low enough to send warm licks under the eaves of the thatched roof, and he sprawled on the rough stone stoop outside the front door, enjoying the coziness. A woman was picking her way over the broken surface of Carpenter's Street. The street needed repair, as did most of the small frame workingmen's houses thrown up carelessly by skilled artisans who earned their living erecting solid homes for those richer and more fortunate.

He was shelling a basket of early peas and trying to keep his eyes on the younger children, his responsibility when Mam was away. William Stewart, six, and Anne Mary, four, were grubbing in the dirt at the side of the house and playing secret giggly games. Jonathan Carter, eighteen months old, lay on a lambskin, papped, burped, and gurgling with content. Samuel Edward, who was seven, had given Rob J. the slip. Somehow crafty Samuel always managed to melt away instead of sharing work, and Rob was keeping an eye out for him, feeling wrathful. He split the green pods one after another and scraped the peas from the waxy seedcase with his thumb the way Mam did, not pausing as he noted the woman coming directly to him.

Stays in her stained bodice raised her bosom so that sometimes when she moved there was a glimpse of rouged nipple, and her fleshy face was garish with cosmetics. Rob J. was only nine years old but a child of London knew a trollop.

"Here now. This Nathanael Cole's house?"

He studied her resentfully, for it wasn't the first time tarts had come to their door seeking his father. "Who wants to learn?" he said roughly, glad his Da was out seeking work and she had missed him, glad his Mam was out delivering embroidery and was spared embarrassment.

"His wife needs him. She sent me."

"What do you mean, needs him?" The competent young hands stopped shelling peas.

The whore regarded him coolly, having caught his opinion of her in his tone and manner. "She your mother?"

He nodded.

"She's taken labor bad. She's in Egglestan's stables close by Puddle Dock. You'd best find your father and tell him," the woman said, and went away.

The boy looked about desperately. "Samuel!" he shouted, but bloody Samuel was off who-knows-where, as usual, and Rob fetched William and Anne Mary from their play. "Take care of the small ones, Willum," he said. Then he left the house and started to run.

Those who may be depended upon to prattle said Anno Domini 1021, the year of Agnes Cole's eighth pregnancy, belonged to Satan. It had been marked by calamities to people and monstrosities of nature. The previous autumn the harvest in the fields had been blighted by hard frosts that froze rivers. There were rains such as never before, and with the rapid thaw a high tide ran up the Thames and tore away bridges and homes. Stars fell, streaming light down windy winter skies, and a comet was seen. In February the earth distinctly quaked. Lightning struck the head off a crucifix and men muttered that Christ and his saints slept. It was rumored that for three days a spring had flowed with blood, and travelers reported the Devil appearing in woods and secret places.

Agnes had told her eldest son not to pay heed to the talk. But she had added uneasily that if Rob J. saw or heard anything unusual, he must make the sign of the Cross.

People were placing a heavy burden on God that year, for the crop failure had brought hard times. Nathanael had earned no pay for more than four months and was kept by his wife's ability to create fine embroideries.

When they were newly wed, she and Nathanael had been sick with love and very confident of their future; it had been his plan to become wealthy as a contractor-builder. But promotion was slow within the carpenters' guild, at the hands of examination committees who scrutinized test projects as if each piece of work were meant for the King. He had spent six years as Apprentice Carpenter and twice that long as Companion Joiner. By now he should have been an aspirant for Master Carpenter, the professional classification needed to become a contractor. But the process of becoming a Master took energy and prosperous times, and he was too dispirited to try.

Their lives continued to revolve around the trade guild, but now even the London Corporation of Carpenters failed them, for each morning Nathanael reported to the guild house only to learn there were no jobs. With other hopeless men he sought escape in a brew they called pigment: one of the carpenters would produce honey, someone else brought out a few spices, and the Corporation always had a jug of wine at hand.

Carpenters' wives told Agnes that often one of the men would go out and bring back a woman on whom their unemployed husbands took drunken turns.

Despite his failings she couldn't shun Nathanael, she was too fond of fleshly delight. He kept her belly large, pumping her full of child as soon as she was emptied, and whenever she was nearing term he avoided their home. Their life conformed almost exactly to the dire predictions made by her father when, with Rob J. already in her, she had married the young carpenter who had come to Watford to help build their neighbor's barn. Her father had blamed her schooling, saying that education filled a woman with lascivious folly.

Her father had owned his small farm, which had been given him by Aethelred of Wessex in lieu of pay for military service. He was the first of the Kemp family to become a yeoman. Walter Kemp had sent his daughter for schooling in the hope that it would gain her a landowner's marriage, for proprietors of great estates found it handy to have a trusted person who was able to read and do sums, and why should it not be a wife? He had been embittered to see her make a low and sluttish match. He had not even been able to disinherit her, poor man. His tiny holding had gone to the Crown for back taxes when he died.

But his ambition had shaped her life. The five happiest years of her memory had been as a child in the nunnery school. The nuns had worn scarlet shoes, white and violet tunics, and veils delicate as cloud. They had taught her to read and to write, to recognize a smattering of Latin as it was used in the catechism, to cut clothing and sew an invisible seam, and to produce orphrey, embroidery so elegant it was sought after in France, where it was known as English Work.

The "foolishness" she had learned from the nuns now kept her family in food.

This morning she had debated about whether to go to deliver her orphrey. It was close to her time and she felt huge and clumsy, but there was little left in the larder. It was necessary to go to Billingsgate Market to buy flour and meal, and for that she needed the money that would be paid by the embroidery exporter who lived in Southwark on the other side of the river. Carrying her small bundle, she made her way slowly down Thames Street toward London Bridge.

As usual, Thames Street was crowded with pack animals and stevedores moving merchandise between the cavernous warehouses and the forest of ships' masts on the quays. The noise fell on her like rain on a drought. Despite their troubles, she was grateful to Nathanael for taking her away from Watford and the farm.

She loved this city so!

"Whoreson! You come back here and give me my money. Give it on back," a furious woman screeched at someone Agnes couldn't see.

Skeins of laughter were tangled with ribbons of words in foreign languages. Curses were hurled like affectionate blessings.

She walked past ragged slaves lugging pigs of iron to waiting ships. Dogs barked at the wretched men who struggled under their brutal loads, pearls of sweat gleaming on their shaven heads. She breathed the garlic odor of their unwashed bodies and the metallic stink of the pig iron and then a more welcome smell from a cart where a man was hawking meat pasties. Her mouth watered but she had a single coin in her pocket and hungry children at home. "Pies like sweet sin," the man called. "Hot and good!"

The docks gave off an aroma of sun-warmed pine pitch and tarred rope. She held a hand to her stomach as she walked and felt her baby move, floating in the ocean contained between her hips. On the corner a rabble of sailors with flowers in their caps sang lustily while three musicians played on a fife, a drum, and a harp. As she moved past them she noted a man leaning against a strange-looking wagon marked with the signs of the zodiac. He was perhaps forty years old. He was beginning to lose his hair, which like his beard was strong brown in color. His features were comely; he would have been more handsome than Nathanael save for the fact that he was fat. His face was ruddy and his stomach bloomed before him as fully as her own. His corpulence didn't repel; on the contrary, it disarmed and charmed and told the viewer that here was a friendly and convivial spirit too fond of the best things in life. His blue eyes had a glint and sparkle that matched the smile on his lips. "Pretty mistress. Be my dolly?" he said. Startled, she looked about to see to whom he might be speaking, but there was no one else.

"Hah!" Ordinarily she would have frozen trash with a glance and put him out of mind, but she had a sense of humor and enjoyed a man with one, and this was too rich.

"We are made for one another. I would die for you, my lady," he called after her ardently.

"No need. Christ already has, sirrah," she said.

She lifted her head, squared her shoulders, and walked away with a seductive twitch, preceded by the almost unbelievable enormity of her child-laden stomach and joining in his laughter.

It had been a long time since a man had complimented her femaleness, even in jest, and the absurd exchange lifted her spirits as she navigated Thames Street. Still smiling, she was approaching Puddle Dock when the pain came.

"Merciful mother," she whispered.

It struck again, beginning in her abdomen but taking over her mind and entire body so that she was unable to stand. As she sank to the cobbles of the public way the bag of waters burst.

"Help me!" she cried. "Somebody!"

A London crowd gathered at once, eager to see, and she was hemmed in by legs. Through a mist of pain she perceived a circle of faces looking down at her.

Agnes groaned.

"Here now, you bastards," a drayman growled. "Give her room to breathe. And let us earn our daily bread. Get her off the street so our wagons can pass."

They carried her into a place that was dark and cool and smelled strongly of manure. In the course of the move someone made off with her bundle of orphrey. Deeper within the gloom, great forms shifted and swayed. A hoof kicked a board with a sharp report, and there was a loud whickering.

"What's all this? Now, you cannot bring her in here," a querulous voice said. He was a fussy little man, potbellied and gap-toothed, and when she saw his hostler's boots and cap she recognized him for Geoff Egglestan and knew she was in his stables. More than a year ago Nathanael had rebuilt some stalls here, and she grasped at the fact.

"Master Egglestan," she said faintly. "I am Agnes Cole, wife of the carpenter, with whom you are well acquainted."

She thought she saw unwilling recognition on his face, and the surly knowledge that he couldn't turn her away.

The people crowded in behind him, bright-eyed with curiosity.

Agnes gasped. "Please, will somebody be kind enough to fetch my husband?" she asked.

"I can't leave my business," Egglestan muttered. "Somebody else must go"

No one moved or spoke.

Her hand went to her pocket and found the coin. "Please," she said again, and held it up.

"I'll do my Christian duty," a woman, obviously a streetwalker, said at once. Her fingers closed over the coin like a claw.

The pain was unbearable, a new and different pain. She was accustomed to close contractions; her labors had been mildly difficult after the first two pregnancies but in the process she had stretched. There had been miscarriages before and following the birth of Anne Mary, but both Jonathan and the girl child had left her body easily after the breaking of the waters, like slick little seeds squirted between two fingers. In five birthings she had never experienced anything like this.

Sweet Agnes, she said in numb silence. Sweet Agnes who succors the lambs, succor me.

Always during labor she prayed to her name saint and Saint Agnes helped, but this time the whole world was unremitting pain and the child was in her like a great plug.

Eventually her ragged screams attracted the attention of a passing midwife, a crone who was more than slightly drunk, and she drove the spectators from the stables with curses. When she turned back, she studied Agnes with disgust. "Bloody men set you down in the shit," she muttered. There was no better place to move her. She lifted Agnes' skirts above her waist and cut away the undergarments; then on the floor in front of the gaping pudenda she brushed away the strawy manure with her hands, which she wiped on a filthy apron.

From her pocket she took a vial of lard already darkened with the blood and juices of other women. Scooping out some of the rancid grease, she made washing movements until her hands were lubricated, then she eased first two fingers, then three, then her entire hand into the dilated orifice of the straining woman who was now howling like an animal.

"You'll hurt twice as much, mistress," the midwife said in a few moments, lubricating her arms up to the elbows. "The little beggar could bite its own toes, had it a mind to. It's coming out arse first."



Rob J. had started to run toward Puddle Dock. Then he realized that he had to find his father and he turned toward the carpenters' guild, as every member's child knew to do in time of trouble.

The London Corporation of Carpenters was housed at the end of Carpenter's Street in an old structure of wattle-and-daub, a framework of poles interwoven with withes and branches thickly overlaid with mortar that had to be renewed every few years. Inside the roomy guild house a dozen men in the leather doublets and tool belts of their trade were seated at the rough chairs and tables made by the house committee; he recognized neighbors and members of his father's Ten but didn't see Nathanael.

The guild was everything to the London woodworkers—employment office, dispensary, burial society, social center, relief organization during periods of unemployment, arbiter, placement service and hiring hall, political influence and moral force. It was a tightly organized society composed of four divisions of carpenters called Hundreds. Each Hundred was made up of ten Tens that met separately and more intimately, and it wasn't until a member was lost to a Ten by death, extended illness, or relocation that a new member was taken into the guild as Apprentice Carpenter, usually from a waiting list that contained the names of sons of members. The word of its Chief Carpenter was as final as that of any royalty, and it was to this personage, Richard Bukerel, that Rob now hurried.


Excerpted from The Physician by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 1986 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Gordon’s compelling novel recreates the 11th century so powerfully that the reader is propelled through its several hundred pages by a tidal wave of imagination and authentic detail.” —Publishers Weekly

“Populated by engaging characters, rich in incident and vivid in historical detail, [The Physician] is a pleasure.” —The New York Times

[The Physician]has the flavor of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, but with a deeper character development and story arc . . . . An insightful and unforgettable read.” —Zoltaire’s Blog

“An adventurous and inspiring tale of a quest for medical knowledge pursued in a violent world full of superstition and prejudice.” —Library Journal


  • Historical fiction readers (particularly fans of sagas and series)
  • Medical fiction fans
  • Readers with an interest in Europe and the Middle East
  • Readers with an interest in the Middle Ages

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Physician 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
This book was a near-miss for me. I give the author props for clearly doing a great deal of research on the time period (Middle Ages). The story of a young barber-surgeon's odyssey to become a trained physician is told in a linear, straightforward way. But the gripping quality of Gary Jennings (The Journeyer; Raptor), Ken Follett (Pillars of the Earth), or even Taylor Caldwell (Dear and Glorious Physician), which is so necessary for an epic tale, is simply missing. The writing is workmanlike in this book, but lacks the compelling power it needs - at least to sustain my interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite authors once stated that the historic noval was one of the best introductions to history. In "The Physician" we have the proof. It opens the eye to a whole area of history and culture and attitudes that most of us have never been aware of and which influence our world today. The characters and situation developement, the attention to historical detail and background, are insightful. But it is the magic of simply a well told story, that make this one of the great reads of all time. Once read, it will never be forgotten. I first read this story a dozen years ago, and for a number of reasons, have dipped into its pages over the years. A conversation with a friend a couple of days ago brought it once more to mind. I am going to enjoy the magic once more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This arthor brought in many details of the midieval Chistian Jewish and Muslum cultures. He did not gloss over the good or bad. This time saw medicine in it's infancy. Belief and taboos were explored. Iwill read his other books. He packed a lot in the 700 pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read most of Gordon's other books and find him to be a great author in the tradition of Uris, Jennings, Clavell and Michener. His characters are well drawn and the story is compelling. This caliber of historical fiction is not being written much these days.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this book in Vietnamese (which was translated from German, 'Der Medicus'). I was mesmerized by all the details, both historical and fictional. As a doctor, I also enjoyed the incorporated history of medicine as well. I plan to re-read this work again in English.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was incredible, a must read. Early history in England, the story of a boy who has an incredible gift to tell life from death by the touch of a hand and how he learned to use it for the betterment of the art of doctoring. Rob J. Cole becomes a savior to the future of the medical world but his relentless persuit to become the best physician he can be. His travels and mishaps are intertaining and well as tear jerkers, and yet you leave him wishing he was a part of your life. I also reccomend 'Shaman.' These are just awsome books to say the least. Treat yourself, read them!
MMMNJ More than 1 year ago
A beautifully told and compelling story...Rob J. Cole is now a classic literary figure!
Sam62 More than 1 year ago
Noah Gordon has written a well-researched masterpiece, but the reader can't come to the book casually. This is a book that requires time, sustained interest, and patience to reap the full rewards.
highschoolteacher More than 1 year ago
This book ranks as one of the best 10 books on my lifetime reading list. If you have any interest in history or medicine you will enjoy this book. The characters are good, the story is good. Each time I picked the book up I had to set a specific amount of reading time, then make myself put it down. The second and third books in the trilogy are not worth the time, but don't miss "The Physician".
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished The Physician and I was pleased. It's a hybrid somewhere between Gary Jennings' 'Journeyer' and Ken Follet's 'Pillars of the Earth', and although not quite as good as either it is still very entertaining and if you like either of those books, I recommend this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an awesome book. The settings are described in such a detail that I meant the author visited the places by himself. A personal story about a young man who gives up nearly everything to reach for his dream: becoming a physician. On his journey to Persia the advance medicine is not the only thing he learns... Grabbing, exciting, authentic!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was meant to fill some time this summer for me, but it turned out to be a fast and exciting read! The historical and cultural feel of this work is all encompassing. I could close my eyes and feel that I was in the midst of Rob learning the barber- surgeon trade, then travelling to Ispahan with him. Ultimately, I was most upset that this book had a final page, I wanted it to continue for many more stories of the Cole journey. I would like to herald Mr. Gordon for his style and skill, and will be reading the remaining works he has created. This book has made me hungry again for the fun, adventuresome read. Thank you Noah Gordon!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully woven story and adventure, with all the elements. I loved learning some history of medicine, and of the times. I really enjoyed it, and will be reading his other books. Look out for his latest: The last Jew (El utlimo judio, on Spanish BOL).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read slowly to be able to enjoy the detailed historical information woven throughout a a good story
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written and entertaining.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
audsdau50 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It started out a bit slow, but quickly pulled me in and held me right to the end. It is an amazing historical novel that delves deeply int not only medical history but life in Europe and the middle east 1000 years ago! It gave me a bit more understanding of some of issues we still face today over religious conflict and intolerance of opposing viewpoints. A must read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to put down.   If you like historical fiction this is a great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am very glad I read this book. I am interested in the "ancient world" and life then. There was a great deal of great research done for this. It presents a very different view of life in the East.