Medieval medicine

Medieval medicine was an evolving mixture of the scientific and the spiritual. In the early middle ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire, standard medical knowledge was based chiefly upon surviving Greek and Roman texts, preserved in monasteries and elsewhere. Ideas about the origin and cure of disease were not, however, purely secular, but were also based on a spiritual world view, in which factors such as destiny, sin, and astral influences played as great a part as any physical cause.

In this era, there was no clear tradition of scientific medicine, and accurate observations went hand-in-hand with spiritual beliefs as part of the practice of medicine.



In the early period there was no single, organised, strand of medieval medicine. Instead someone struck down by injury or disease could turn to folk medicine, prayer, astrology, spells, mysticism, or to an established physician if such were available to him. The boundaries between each profession were loose and movable. Classical medical texts, such as those by Galen, were widely used on the basis of authority rather than experimental confirmation.

As Christianity grew in influence, a tension developed between the church and folk-medicine, since much in folk medicine was magical, or mystical, and had its basis in sources that were not compatible with Christian faith. Spells and incantations were used in conjunction with herbs and other remedies. Such spells had to be separated from the physical remedies, or replaced with Christian prayers or devotions. Similarly, the dependence upon the power of herbs or gems needed to be explained through Christianity and only Christianity.

The church taught that God often sent illness as a punishment, and that repenting would cure all ills. This led to the practice of penance and pilgrimage as a means of curing illness.

The medieval system

Starting in the areas least affected by the disruption of the fall of the western empire, a unified theory of medicine began to develop, based largely on the writings of the Greek physicians such as Hippocrates, 460 BC - 377 BC, and Galen, born in 130. Hippocrates wrote about diseases, surgery, and bone fractures as well as human anatomy. Galen wrote more than 500 treatises on physiology, hygiene, dietetics, pathology, and pharmacology, and is credited with the discovery of how the spinal cord controls various muscles. From his dissections, he described the heart valves and determined the purpose of the bladder and kidneys.

Anglo-Saxon translations of classical works like Dioscorides Herbal survive from the 10th Century, showing the persistence of elements of classical medical knowledge. Compendiums like Bald's Leechbook (circa 900), include citations from a variety of classical works alongside local folk remedies.

Although in the Byzantine Empire the organized practice of medicine never ceased, the revival of methodical medical instruction from standard texts in the west can be traced to the church-run college of Salerno in Southern Italy in the Eleventh Century, where Latin, Greek and Arabic texts translated at the nearby monastic centre of Monte Cassino were readily available. The Salernitan masters gradually established a canon of writings, known as the Ars medica, which became the basis of European medical education for several centuries, even though by the Thirteenth Century medical leadership had passed to the newer universities of Paris and Montpelier.

By the Thirteenth Century many European towns were demanding that physicians have several years of study or training before they could practice. Surgery had a lower status than pure medicine, beginning as a craft tradition until Roger Frugardi of Parma composed his treatise on Surgery around about 1180. This led to a stream of Italian works of greater scope over the next hundred years, later spreading to the rest of Europe.

During the Crusades European medicine began to be influenced by Arab medicine. Arab commentators often saw European medical practises as barbaric and superstitious; Usamah ibn Munqidh for example visited sick or injured European pilgrims who eventually died due to their own doctors' practises.

The great crisis in European medicine came with the Black Death epidemic in the 14th century. Prevailing medical theories focused on religious rather than scientific explanations - all to no avail since about half the population of Europe was wiped out.

Theories of medicine

The underlying principle of medieval medicine was the theory of humours. This was derived from the ancient medical works, and dominated all western medicine up until the 19th century. The theory stated that within every individual there were four humours, or principal fluids - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, these were produced by various organs in the body, and they had to be in balance for a person to remain healthy. Too much phlegm in the body, for example, caused lung problems; and the body tried to cough up the phlegm to restore a balance. The balance of humours in humans could be achieved by diet, medicines, and by blood-letting, using leeches.

Black bile Melancholic Spleen Cold Dry Earth
Phlegm Phlegmatic Lungs Cold Wet Water
Blood Sanguine Head Warm Wet Air
Yellow bile Choleric Gall Bladder Warm Dry Fire

The astrological signs of the zodiac were also thought to be associated with certain humours. Even now, some still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities.

The use of herbs dovetailed naturally with this system, the success of herbal remedies being ascribed to their action upon the humours within the body. The use of herbs also drew upon the medieval Christian doctrine of signatures which stated that God had provided some form of alleviation for every ill, and that these things, be they animal, vegetable or mineral, carried a mark or a signature upon them that gave an indication of their usefulness. For example, the seeds of Skullcap (used as a headache remedy) can appear to look like miniature skulls; and the white spotted leaves of Lungwort (used for tuberculosis) bear a similarity to the lungs of a diseased patient. A large number of such resemblances are believed to exist.

Most monasteries developed herb gardens for use in the production of herbal cures, and these remained a part of folk medicine, as well as being used by some professional physicians. Books of herbal remedies were produced, one of the most famous being the Welsh, Red Book of Hergest, dating from around 1400.

The healers

Healers throughout the medieval period could come in many varieties.

Physicians who studied the works of the Greek masters at Universities, were the elite of the medical profession in the middle ages. However few people other than the well-off or the nobility had regular access to these. Physicians diagnosed their patients by close examination of their blood, urine and stools, and determined their complexion or balance of humours. They could prescribe medicines, or bloodletting from various parts of the body to rectify the balance of humours. Physicians could also attempt surprisingly complex operations like trepanation of the skull, to relieve pressure on the brain, or the removal of eye cataracts.

Folk Healers passed on their knowledge from master to apprentice, and were more accessible to the peasant or labourer than physicians. Unregulated, but knowledgeable on herbs and folk-remedies, they were gradually excluded from the medical system.

Monastic Medicine Monasteries played a big part in the provision of medieval medicine. Virtually every monastery had an infirmary for the monks or nuns, and this led to provision being made for the care of secular patients. Almost a half of the hospitals in medieval Europe were directly affiliated with monasteries, priories or other religious institutions. Many of the rest imitated religious communities, formulated precise rules of conduct, required a uniform type of dress, and integrated worship services into their daily routine.

The term hospital encompassed hostels for travellers, dispensaries for poor relief, clinics and surgeries for the injured, and homes for the blind, lame, elderly, and mentally ill. Monastic hospitals developed many treatments, both therapeutic and spiritual. Patients were supposed to help each other through prayer and calm, perhaps benefiting as much from this as from any physical treatment offered.

The 12th century saw the establishment of the Knights Hospitaller, a unique mixture of monastic, military, and medical life. The Hospitallers ran hospitals in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Crusader states, and their order eventually spread to the rest of Europe as well.

Saints Saints were also used to heal the sick. Although healing by saints (miracles) would not be considered medicine today, in medieval times, this method was just as valid as any other form of healing. Approximately 2/3 of the people who went to saints for healing were peasants (as defined by R.C Finucane). Saints were often called upon when other remedies would not be found in time (for instance, accidental death). They were rarely called upon for longtime illnesses, such as birth defects. In these cases, saints were often used when all else had failed. Once canonization was established, the church would only recognize canonized saints as legitimate miracle makers, however, this did not always stop people from going to non-canonized "saints".

Women During the early Middle Ages, it is probable that there were as many women involved in the practice of medicine as men. However, the professionalisation of medicine in the later medieval period, and the development of university faculties of medicine excluded women from the profession. Women continued to function as midwives, however, throughout the period. A midwife generally learned her trade apprenticed to a more experienced midwife, or else was taught by a father or husband who was a physician. The only qualification needed was a statement from a parish priest declaring that she was of good character.

Women also served as nurses in the monastic orders, although there were also some secular nurses, caring for the physical needs of patients.

Later developments

During the period of the Renaissance from the mid 1450s onward, there were many advances in medical practice. The Italian Girolamo Fracastoro, 1478 - 1553, was the first to propose that epidemic diseases might be caused by objects outside the body that could be transmitted by direct or indirect contact. He also discovered new treatments for diseases such as syphilis.

In 1543 the Flemish Scholar Andreas Vesalius wrote the first complete textbook on human anatomy: "De Humani Corporis Fabrica", meaning "On the Fabric of the Human Body". Much later, in 1628, William Harvey explained the circulation of blood through the body in veins and arteries. It was previously thought that blood was the product of food and was absorbed by muscle tissue.

During the 1500's, Paracelsus, like Girolamo, discovered that illness was caused by agents outside the body such as bacteria, not by imbalances within the body.

Leonardo Da Vinci also had a large impact on medical advances during the Renaissance. Born on April 15th, 1452, Da Vinci's approach to science was based on detailed observation. He participated in several autopsies and created many detailed anatomical drawings, planning a major work of comparative human anatomy. Until the 16th century human dissection was restricted because the church felt that it was disrespectful to God. Once these restrictions were lifted anatomy became an essential part of a doctor’s training.

The French army doctor Ambroise Paré, born in 1510, revived the ancient Greek method of tying off blood vessels. After amputation the common procedure was to cauterize the open end of the amputated appendage to stop the haemorrhaging. This was done by heating oil, water, or metal and touching it to the wound to seal off the blood vessels. Pare also believed in dressing wounds with clean bandages and ointments, including on he made himself composed of eggs, oil of roses, and turpentine. He was the first to design artificial hands and limbs for amputation patients. On one of the artificial hands, the two pairs of fingers could be moved for simple grabbing and releasing tasks and the hand look perfectly natural underneath a glove.

Medical catastrophes were more common in the Renaissance than they are today. During the Renaissance, trade routes were the perfect means of transportation for disease. Before the Spanish came to America and Mexico, the deadly germs of smallpox, measles, and influenza were unheard of. The Native Americans did not have the immunities the Europeans developed through long contact with the diseases. Christopher Columbus ended the Americas' isolation in 1492 while sailing under the flag of Castile, Spain. Deadly epidemics swept across the Caribbean. Smallpox wiped out villages in a matter of months. The island of Hispaniola had a population of 250,000 Native Americans. 20 years later, the population had dramatically dropped to 6,000. 50 years later, it was estimated that approximately 500 Native Americans were left. Smallpox then spread to Mexico where it then helped destroy the Aztec Empire. In the first century of Spanish rule in Mexico, 1500-1600, Central and South Americans died by the millions. By 1650, 85% of Mexico's population had perished.

Throughout history, civilization has been affected by disease, religious practice, and innovations. Obviously, without medical geniuses and innovations, civilization would not be what it is today.


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