Light in the Dark Ages

Light in the Dark Ages

By Raza Naqvi and Urszula Zurawska

The University of Western Ontario Medical Journal, Vol.78:1 (2008)

Folio from an Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides, De Materica Medica, 1229

Folio from an Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides, De Materica Medica, 1229

Abstract: While the Dark Ages were a time of intellectual and societal stagnation throughout much of Europe, the torch of academia continued to burn brightly in the Islamic world. The intellectual progress made during this time includes numerous medical breakthroughs which physicians, historians, and students should strive to understand not only for academic interest but also to learn and improve medicine today. The use of secular hospitals originated in this era and there were significant developments in a variety of medical fields including anesthesia, ophthalmology, pharmacology, neurology and psychiatry. A strong emphasis on patient-centered and interdisciplinary care was evident in many of the areas of Islamic medicine during the Dark Ages. The achievements of Islamic physicians during the Dark Ages also demonstrates the importance of strong communication within the global medical field, as the presence of avenues for global academic communication could have eliminated much of the disparity in medical care in different parts of the world over subsequent centuries. The need for improved international communication applies to medicine even today.

Introduction: The Dark Ages are known to be a time of intellectual and societal stagnation throughout much of Europe and as learners in the Western world we rarely hear about the academic achievements during this time. This is clearly seen in the medical field where historians often move from the work of the Greco-Romans before the Dark Ages to the discoveries of the Europeans afterwards. However from the seventh to thirteenth centuries the Islamic empire spread from Spain to China and was the centre for trading of goods, knowledge, and ideas. The Islamic civilization was thriving intellectually at this time yet many historians regard the role of the Muslims during the Dark Ages as merely translators and transmitters of the Greco-Roman medical knowledge.

There are three important stages in the development of medicine in Islam. The first is the compilation and translation of the medical works of previous eras which occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries. The second stage was that of significant and genuine contribution by Islamic physicians to the current medical and scientific knowledge base. The third stage, occurring after the thirteenth century, was that of intellectual stagnation and decline within the Islamic world.

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