What’s in the name? Doctor

Doctor, doctorate, PhD:
what is in the name?

“Master Jacobus de Farneto of the Roman patrimony is appointed to teach grammar for the year 13841385 at Bologna…, and he must take his doctor’s degree or at least the licentiate before next Christmas…” Teaching Appointment Conditional on Receiving the Doctorate)

Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi, detail at MNAC, Barcelona (Google Art Project)


‘A person who, in any faculty or branch of learning, has attained to the highest degree conferred by a University;
a title originally implying competency to teach such subject or subjects, but now merely regarded as a certificate of the highest proficiency therein.’ (OED)


Doctors have always been synonymous with wise men, knowledgeable and competent enough to teach others; if need be, sharing authoritative opinions and coining principles to follow.

At the same time, the term would also refer to medical practitioners, healers, or diviners, well acquainted with witchcraft (cf. definitions in OED; on leeches, healers, and physicians before the word doctor entered the language, see Marta Sylwanowicz’s book Old and Middle English Sickness-nouns…).

Much as witchcraft and quack doctors may be tempting to research further, in today’s post we are mainly interested in the academic sense, looking closely at the learned doctors of academia.


Latin doctor ‘a teacher, instructor, trainer’ (OLD, imbutor ‘mayster’ or eruditor) and ‘scholar, sage,’ in pre-Conquest Latin sources written in Britain would also refer to king’s men known as witan, i.e. the wise (DMLBS). In the academic sense, the Latin form was used throughout all middle ages well into the 15th century.

As for the English term doctor (ME doctour) ‘a teacher,’ it is first attested by dictionaries at the end of the 14th century, with the mention of Seynt Austyn, þe firste doctour of Englischemen (a1387, MS StJ-C H.1, Polychronicon, p. 43). As was the case with master, this title is also associated with learnedness and wisdom, first in the clerical context, and in time moving to its rather secular meaning.

For instance, the epic poem “Cursor Mundi” retells the story of Jesus’ dispute with “doctors,” cf.:

How ihesus disputed wiþ þe doctours.
(a1400 (a1325), MS Fairf. 14, Cursor Mundi, l. 12577)

This particular passage refers to Luke 2: 45–47, where young Jesus is found in the temple disputing with the elders of the church, who in the Greek original are referred to as didaskalos ‘an instructor, teacher,’ ‘master’ (STRONG). Incidentally, the translation of Luke in the King James Version mentions doctors, while modern editions translate them as teachers (cf. NIV, Catholic Bible, etc.), which nicely shows the connection across centuries between doctordom, teacherdom, and mastership.

In another example, John Trevisa translates a passage about Plato of Athens, the founder of Academia, cf.:

Plato of Athenes was doctour of alle þe prouynce of Attica þat was grecia.
(a1398, MS Add 27944, Trev.Barth, 172a/b)

By calling Plato a doctor here, the translator identifies the first academic as the authority, a pivotal figure in shaping the philosophical thought in the whole province of Attica.

In the third case, our doctors sit at the Arthurian round table, rubbing elbows with the dukes and nobles (ME dousse-per or duspers), clearly behaving as wise councillors:

Bot I sall tak concell at kynges enoyntede,         
Off dukes and duspers and doctours noble,       
Offe peres of þe parlement, prelates and oþer,    
Off þe richeste renkys of þe Rounde Table.        
(c1440 (?a1400), MS Thrn, Morte Arthure, l. 144–147)

The choice of words here is clearly dictated by artistic means; notice the beautiful melody of dukes and duspers and doctours. Who knows what word we would find here, had it not been for alliteration!

On a side note and somewhat rhetorically, the above examples also happen to illustrate the essential role of translators and their craft, especially when it comes to such widely-read texts as scriptures or popular poetry.


All in all, in each of the three cases above we see wise men, learned men, but not necessarily PhDs as we know them nowadays. The first references to university members bearing this title, with both master and doctor used in the same context, appear soon after, at the turn of the 15th century. What is interesting, for a long time all university titles were nearly synonymous, only slightly differentiating between disciplines:

Doctoures of decres and of diuinite Maistres,
Þat shulde konne and knowe · alkynnes clergye,         
And answere to argumentz · and also to a quodlibet (…).       
(c1400 (1378), MS LdMisc 581, Langland’s Piers Plowman B., Passus XV, ll. 373–377)

By the general rule of thumb, early faculties of arts would award the titles of masters, while faculties of law and medicine would usually have their doctors at the same level, a distinction which we may infer from the quote above (doctoures of decres ‘doctors of laws’ and divinite maistres ‘masters of divinity/theology’). In reality, the two, i.e. master and doctor, tended to be used interchangeably, both referring to the highest degrees, cf.:

That no man..practyse in Fisyk..but he be Bacheler or Doctour of Fisyk, havynge Lettres testimonyalx sufficeantz of on of those degrees of the Universite. (1421, Rolls of Parliament, 4.158a)

Maister Gilbert Kymer..Doctour of Medicyns, And Rectour of Medicyns in þe Cite of London. (1423, Gldh LetBk I & K, Letterbooks in the City of London Records Office, Guildhall, 108/3)

Gy de Caulhiaco Cyrurgien, maister in medicene, i. doctor of phisic in þe ful clere studie of..mountpelers. (?a1425, MS N.Y. Acad. Med., tr. Guy de Chauliac Grande Chirurgie, f. 0)

Maister of phisik..ȝowre lyues cours..ys I-runne. (a1450 (?c1430), MS Hnt EL 26.A.13, John Lydgate, The daunce of Machabree, 417)

What we have here is doctors of physics and masters of physics, doctors of medicine and masters in medicine, alike; apparently, the discipline did not influence the choice of the title yet. We may deduce as much from yet another passage, this time excerpted from the appointment documentation of a master Jacobus de Farneto, teacher of grammar, obliged to:

take his doctor’s degree or at least the licentiate before next Christmas, otherwise he is to receive no salary. (“Teaching Appointment Conditional on receiving the Doctorate,” 1384, in: Thorndike 1975: 256)

It seems that titles did not seem to arrange the learned men on an academic totem pole, yet. Only later did the Parisian university start leaning toward magisters and professors, while Bologna favored doctors, professores, and domini. In time, also England began differentiating between superior faculties of legal doctors and inferior faculties of magisters, who dealt with arts and grammar (cf. e.g., Rashdall 1895: 21–22).

DOCTORS at Æ Academic

Modern scholars obtain their degree of PhD (Ph.D. or DPhil) having accomplished a doctoral school in line with requirements of a given country or a European Union member state and having defended a thesis in front of a panel of experts ― we’ve all gone through the process one way or another, some independently, others as a natural course of their contract with a university. In the next installment you’ll read more on doctoral education, doctors habilitatus and honoris causa in the 21st century.

We are glad to collaborate with doctors and professors of distinguished institutions. Our books are submitted in the process of obtaining academic titles. A few years ago we provided a reprint of Past Participle Marking… e.g. for dr hab. Anna Wojtyś‘s habilitation procedure. Today, it is our great pleasure to share another addition to the higher academic tier ― our own Anna Drogosz, author of a study of Darwin’s metaphorical language, has been appointed the title of habilitated doctor, which opens for her the path to full professorship.

Our publications, including doctorates:
Warsaw Studies in English Historical Linguistics, a series for the University of Warsaw.
Beyond Language, a series for the University of Wrocław, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, and the Polish Academy of Sciences, Wrocław Branch.
Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Literature and Language, a publication for Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities.

Further reading:

Haskins, Charles Homer ([1923] 1957) The Rise of Universities. Ithaka/London: Cornell University Press.
Orme, Nicholas (1975) English Schools in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen.
Orme, Nicholas (2006) Medieval Schools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven, MA|London, UK: Yale University Press.
Rashdall, Hastings (1895) The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. Salerno–Bologna–Paris. Oxford, GB: Clarendon Press.
SKEAT, Walter William (1888) An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. [SKEAT]
Thorndike, Lynn (trans.) (1975) University Records and Life in the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Norton.