Explore the World of Medieval Medicine

Medieval Medicine: A Blend of Science and Spirituality

Explore the World of Medieval Medicine: delve into a time period where physical and spiritual remedies were used to heal the whole person – mind, body, and soul. While this era saw many advancements in the field of medicine, it was also marked by superstition and misunderstanding. In this article, we will examine the state of medieval medicine, the medical practices and treatments of the time, and the influential figures who shaped the field.

The medieval period, also known as the Middle Ages, spanned from the 5th to the 15th century. It was a time of great upheaval, with wars, plagues, and famines ravaging Europe. Medical knowledge was limited and based largely on the works of ancient Greek and Roman physicians. However, there were also many new ideas and practices being developed during this time.

 

Hospitals

St. Benedict (ortodox icon); iscriptions "Benedictus abbas", "Nihil amori Christie praeponere" {Regula Benedicti 4,21)

St. Benedict (ortodox icon); iscriptions “Benedictus abbas”, “Nihil amori Christie praeponere” {Regula Benedicti 4,21)

One of the most significant developments in medieval medicine was the establishment of hospitals. These institutions provided medical care for the sick and the poor and were often run by religious orders, such as the Benedictines and the Dominicans. Many hospitals also had infirmaries, which were separate buildings where patients could receive specialized care.

Medieval hospitals were institutions that provided medical care for the sick and the poor during the Middle Ages. These hospitals were often run by religious orders, such as the Benedictines and the Dominicans, and many also had infirmaries, which were separate buildings where patients could receive specialized care.

One of the earliest hospitals was founded by the Benedictine monk, St. Benedict of Nursia, in the 6th century. His Rule, a set of guidelines for monastic life, included provisions for caring for the sick. These hospitals were known as “hospitals of the poor,” and they provided medical care and shelter for travelers, the sick, and the poor.

Over time, hospitals became more specialized and began to focus on the care of specific groups, such as the mentally ill, lepers, and children. Many hospitals also had hospices, which were facilities that provided end-of-life care for the terminally ill.

In addition to providing medical care, medieval hospitals also played an important role in education. Many physicians and surgeons received their training in hospitals, and hospitals were often home to libraries, which housed medical texts and other important works.

One of the most famous medieval hospitals was the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, which was founded in the 7th century. This hospital was known for its advanced medical care and was a leading center for the treatment of the plague, which devastated Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Other notable medieval hospitals include the Great Hospital in Norwich, England, which was founded in the 11th century, and the Hospital of St. John the Baptist in Bruges, Belgium, which was founded in the 12th century.

Medieval hospitals were not always able to provide the most effective medical care, due to a lack of knowledge and resources. However, they played a crucial role in providing medical care for those who otherwise might not have received it, and they laid the foundation for the modern hospitals we have today.

Despite the many challenges and limitations of medieval hospitals, there were also many advancements and discoveries made during this time. One of the most significant was the development of the quarantine system, which was used to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. This system, which involved isolating infected individuals or groups from the general population, is still in use today.

Other important developments in medieval hospitals include the use of anaesthetics, such as opium and alcohol, to dull pain during surgery, and the development of new surgical instruments, such as forceps and scalpels. These advancements greatly improved the effectiveness and safety of medical procedures.

In conclusion, medieval hospitals played a vital role in the provision of medical care and education during the Middle Ages. While they were limited by a lack of knowledge and resources, they made important contributions to the field of medicine and laid the foundation for the modern hospitals we have today.

Physicians

Hildegard von Bingen and her nuns

Hildegard von Bingen and her nuns

Medieval physicians were the medical professionals of the Middle Ages, a period spanning from the 5th to the 15th century. These men (and occasionally women) were responsible for diagnosing and treating a wide range of ailments, from the physical to the psychological. They drew upon a variety of knowledge and practices, including those of ancient Greek and Roman physicians, as well as their own observations and experiences.

One of the most famous medieval physicians was Galen, a Greek physician who lived in the 2nd century. His works, which focused on anatomy and physiology, were highly influential in the field of medicine and were studied and practiced for centuries. Other notable figures in medieval medicine include Avicenna, a Persian physician who wrote the “Canon of Medicine,” and Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun and herbalist who wrote extensively on the medicinal properties of plants.

Medieval physicians were trained in a variety of fields, including surgery, pharmacology, and herbal medicine. They used a variety of tools and techniques to treat a wide range of ailments. These practices were often based on the principles of the four humors, which were believed to be the fluids that controlled the body’s health. It was believed that an imbalance of these humors could cause illness, and so physicians sought to restore balance through various treatments, such as bleeding, cupping, and leeching.

Medieval physicians also placed a great emphasis on the importance of diet and lifestyle in maintaining good health. They believed that certain foods had medicinal properties and could be used to treat specific ailments. They also believed that exercise, fresh air, and a balanced lifestyle were important for maintaining good health.

Despite the many advancements made in medieval medicine, the field was also marked by superstition and misunderstanding. Many people turned to superstitious remedies, such as carrying herbs or wearing amulets, to ward off disease. Some also believed that illness was a punishment from God and turned to spiritual remedies, such as flagellation and pilgrimages, to seek salvation.

Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516)
Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516)

Despite these limitations, medieval physicians made many important contributions to the field of medicine. They established hospitals, which provided medical care for the sick and the poor, and developed the quarantine system, which was used to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. They also made use of anesthetics, such as opium and alcohol, to dull pain during surgery and developed new surgical instruments, such as forceps and scalpels.

Medieval physicians played a vital role in the medical care of the Middle Ages. They drew upon a variety of knowledge and practices to diagnose and treat a wide range of ailments. While the field was marked by superstition and misunderstanding, it was also a time of great advancement and discovery. The contributions made by medieval physicians laid the foundation for the medical knowledge and technologies we have today.

 

Diseases

Burying Plague Victims of Tournai

Burying Plague Victims of Tournai

The medieval period was a time of great upheaval, with wars, plagues, and famines ravaging Europe. Many diseases and illnesses were prevalent during this time, and medical knowledge was limited in understanding and combating them. 

One of the most devastating diseases of the medieval period was the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. This disease was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and was spread through the bites of infected fleas. The plague devastated Europe, killing millions of people and bringing social and economic disruption. Symptoms of the plague included fever, chills, weakness, and swollen lymph nodes, or “buboes.”

Treatment for the plague was limited, and many people turned to superstitious remedies, such as carrying herbs or wearing amulets to ward off the disease. Some people also believed that the plague was a punishment from God and turned to spiritual remedies, such as flagellation and pilgrimages, to seek salvation. Despite these efforts, the mortality rate for the plague was high, with some estimates suggesting that it killed up to 50% of the European population.

Other common diseases of the medieval period included smallpox, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Smallpox, caused by the variola virus, was highly contagious and caused fever, rash, and pustules on the skin. It was often fatal, especially in young children. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, was a chronic infection that caused disfigurement and nerve damage. It was highly stigmatized and those suffering from it were often ostracized and forced to live in leper colonies. Tuberculosis, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, was a respiratory disease that caused coughing, weight loss, and fatigue. It was often referred to as “consumption” due to the way it slowly wasted away the body.

Medieval treatments for these diseases were often limited and based on superstition and misunderstanding. Herbal remedies and potions were commonly used to try to combat illness, and bleeding and cupping were often used as a means of purging the body of illness. In some cases, surgery was used to treat certain conditions, such as hernias and cataracts. However, these surgeries were often crude and dangerous, and anesthetics were not yet in use.

Despite the many challenges and limitations of medieval medicine, there were also many advancements and discoveries made during this time. The quarantine system, which involved isolating infected individuals or groups from the general population, was developed in an effort to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. The use of anesthetics, such as opium and alcohol, to dull pain during surgery also greatly improved the effectiveness and safety of medical procedures.

The medieval period was a time of great suffering due to the prevalence of diseases such as the bubonic plague, smallpox, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Medical knowledge was limited and treatments were often based on superstition and misunderstanding. Despite these challenges, there were also many advancements and discoveries made in the field of medicine during this time.

Developments

Despite the many challenges and limitations of medieval medicine, there were also many advancements and discoveries made during this time. One of the most significant was the development of the quarantine system, which was used to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. This system, which involved isolating infected individuals or groups from the general population, is still in use today.

Other important developments in medieval medicine include the use of anesthetics, such as opium and alcohol, to dull pain during surgery, and the development of new surgical instruments, such as forceps and scalpels. These advancements greatly improved the effectiveness and safety of medical procedures.

Medieval medicine was a complex and multifaceted field that sought to heal the mind, body, and soul. It was a time of great superstition and misunderstanding, but it was also a time of great advancement and discovery. The medical practices and treatments of the time may seem strange and primitive by modern standards, but they laid the foundation for the medical knowledge and technologies we have today.

 

Recommended Books

The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine by Monica H. Green
The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine by Monica H. Green
Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times Juliana Cummings
Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times Juliana Cummings
Medieval Herbal Remedies The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine by Anne Van Arsdall
Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine by Anne Van Arsdall
The Epidemics of the Middle Ages: The Black Death, The Dancing Mania & The Sweating Sickness by J. F. C. Hecker
The Epidemics of the Middle Ages: The Black Death, The Dancing Mania & The Sweating Sickness by J. F. C. Hecker

Featured Image

Amirdovlat Amasiatsi

The featured image above is a folio from a medieval Armenian encyclopedia, “Useless for Ignoramuses,” written by Amirdovlat Amasiatsi after four years of research in various fields, including medicine, botany, zoology, mineralogy, and geography.

The book was intended to be a valuable resource for generations of Armenian physicians and naturalists, and its lasting impact can be seen in the celebration of its 500th anniversary in 1982. The original hand-written copy of the book was produced in Constantinople in 1482, and it was subsequently copied and disseminated in various parts of Armenia.

Unfortunately, the original copy of “Useless for Ignoramuses” by Amirdovlat has been lost, but a copy made during the author’s lifetime has survived. This copy, known as manuscript Or 3712 of the British Library, was made at Amirdovlat’s expense and includes a list of physicians from the Sebastian school in the colophon written by the scribe. This copy was used by many generations of Sebastian physicians, including the famous Asar Sebastatsi, before ending up in the British Museum library.

 

Sources

  • Saint Benedict | Biography, Rule, Patron Saint Of, Death, & Facts | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Benedict-of-Nursia

  • CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Benedict of Nursia. (2021). Newadvent.org. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02467b.htm

  • N, S. P. (2016). Galen (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/galen/

  • Media, F. (2021, December 17). Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Franciscan Media. https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/saint-hildegard-of-bingen/

  • Black Death | Definition, Cause, Symptoms, Effects, Death Toll, & Facts | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death#ref1121122‌

  • Stefano, G. B., Pilonis, N., Ptacek, R., & Kream, R. M. (2017). Reciprocal Evolution of Opiate Science from Medical and Cultural Perspectives. Medical Science Monitor23, 2890–2896. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.905167

  • The Matenadaran. (2019, August 23). Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/matenadaran-mesrop-mashtots-institute-of-ancient-manuscripts‌

  • Amirdovlat Amasiatsi: A Fifteenth-Century Armenian Natural Historian and Physician : Stella A. Vardanyan : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2020). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/vardanyan-1999-amirdovlat/page/55/mode/2up‌

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