Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science
Conjuring up a time when butchers and executioners knew more about anatomy than university-trained physicians, the phrase ‘medieval medicine’ sounds horrific to those of us with modern ideas on hygiene, instant pain relief, and effective treatments. In those days no one could allay the dread of plague or the many other horrible diseases we have now forgotten.
However, the medieval medical profession provided patients with everything from cosmetic procedures and dietary advice to life-saving surgeries and post-operative antibiotics. Intriguingly, alongside such expertise, some still believed that unicorns, dragons, and elephants supplied vital medical ingredients and that horoscopes could predict the sex of unborn babies. This book explores the labyrinth of strange ideas and unlikely remedies that make up the weird, wonderful, and occasionally beneficial world of medieval medicine. (and, 2017)
“The land called Ebbgate used to be right of way until … Thomas at Wytte and William de Hockele built latrines which stuck out from walls of houses from [which] human filth falls out onto the heads of passers-by.”
The first real jaw-dropper comes in chapter 3 “Adam knew everything”.
“In the beginning, God created Adam… Not so perfect any longer Adam and Eve produced offspring, every generation a little less perfect than their parents”.
“Eventually by medieval times, scholars believed that mankind had become deplorably ignorant. Far from assuming, as we do today, that knowledge increases as we discover more and more about life, the universe and medicine in particular, they viewed the matter in reverse: knowledge was diminishing.”
“The answer was to go way back to the earliest known written sources to recover what had been lost.”
Despite the progress made during the renaissance period, and some application of scientific method by people like William Harvey, poor King Charles II dies horribly after being bled to death and poisoned by “a surfeit of physicians”.
“… if only Charles had been a poor man unable to afford numerous doctors, he may well have recovered from the slight stroke which began the course of treatment.”
Review by Sifa Elizabeth
This is one of those books that was fine – it wasn’t a slog but also didn’t make much impression on me. As a research book, it’s also a rare one that I didn’t take lots of notes about (though that might be research fatigue? because there was lots of good stuff in there that I will probably refer back to using the index at a later date.)
It’s a pretty comprehensive thematic look at medicine in the Middle Ages (yes, I am going to use Medieval and Middle Ages pretty much interchangeably here). Rather than focusing heavily on the medicines themselves, this book looks more at the ideas behind it – how did they learn and pass knowledge on? What was the basis for a diagnosis and prognosis? Who was involved and how were they regulated? What about women and medicine?
I liked this more thematic approach, as it feels a lot more holistic and useful than just lots of tinctures that don’t actually give a sense of the profession and society. Also my eyes tend to glaze after lists of herbs with names I’m not used to (too much time spent in a chemistry lab looking at synthesis instructions!) Instead, this style lets you get to grips with the principles behind the treatment of disease, with lots of examples of people named in records. The names do help attach it to real figures, and make it feel more tangible.
MEDIEVAL MEDICINE goes beyond just the Middle Ages at the end, which was a really nice thematic end. The final few chapters look into Tudor and Stuart Medicine, and then what progress had been made during the Medieval Period and what it laid the groundworks for. My GCSE History was primarily focused on the history and evolution of medicine, so it was nice to see familiar themes bookending the book (but in more detail.)
Review is taken from Sifa Elizabeth (Elizabeth, 2020)
Review by Viktor Athelstan
I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)
I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.
Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.
Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.
Review is taken from Viktor Athelstan (Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount, 2021)
Genre: Non-fiction history
Age Range: Adult
Start Rating: 3 stars
Author: Toni Mount
Toni Mount is a historian and author based in Gravesend, Kent, England, who has gained recognition for her non-fiction medieval history books, such as “Everyday Life in Medieval London” and the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval mystery novels.
Toni Mount is a self-published author who had several books published by Amberley Books. Some of her titles with Amberley include “Everyday Life in Medieval London,” “The Medieval Housewife,” “A Year in the Life of Medieval England,” and “The World of Isaac Newton.” In 2015, Amberley also published “Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: the mysteries of medieval medicine” which was later renamed to “Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science.” Toni was interviewed by Robert Elms on BBC Radio in 2015 and started writing for Tudor Life Magazine. She also created online courses for medievalcourses.com and was published by Madeglobal Publishing for her Sebastian Foxley murder mystery novels. Toni has also contributed articles for various outlets such as BBC History Extra, Dan Snow’s History Hit, The Ricardian Bulletin, and has participated in literary festivals in Rochester and Hastings.
Books from same author
and, M. (2017, November 10). Gordon Thursfield’s review of Medieval Medicine. Goodreads.com. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2038902508
Elizabeth, S. (2020, November 25). Book Review: MEDIEVAL MEDICINE by Toni Mount. Sifa Elizabeth Reads; Sifa Elizabeth Reads. https://sifaelizabethreads.wordpress.com/2020/11/25/book-review-medieval-medicine-by-toni-mount/
Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. (2021, April 3). The Mediaeval Monk; The Mediaeval Monk. https://themediaevalmonk.wordpress.com/2021/04/03/book-review-medieval-medicine-its-mysteries-and-science-by-toni-mount/
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