Medical Education in the Middle Ages

Miniature of a physician treating a man lying in a bed. Medical Education in the Middle Ages

By Loren C. MacKinney

Journal of World History / Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale, Vol. 2 (1955)

Introduction: In Aristotle’s Politics (III, II) medical men were divided into three classes: 1) craftsmen, 2) master physicians, and 3) laymen who studied medicine as part of their general education. These three categories also represent three types of medical education which prevailed during the Middle Ages, in part as a heritage from the ancient world: viz. 1) the education of simple craftsmen by practical experience; 2) the education of the higher type of physician by formal instruction in theoretical medicine plus practical experience; and 3) the study by cultured laymen of theoretical medicine along with liberal arts.

During the pre-medieval centuries from Augustus to Constantine, most medical men in the Roman Empire seem to have belonged to the first category. They were craftsmen of the manual-labor class; sons or ordinary practitioners following the family tradition of healing; or apprentices in a collective association; or ambitious freedmen, perhaps Greeks, the medical ‘murderers’, whom Pliny the Elder hated so cordially; or the valetudinarii in military hospitals; or even slave trainees on the medical staff of a villa infirmary. In any case, most practitioners were men of little or no formal education, trained almost entirely by experience. Such were the centum discipuli who accompanied the physician of the poet Martial; also the physicians of the second century whom Galen considered illiterate or worse.

To be sure, Galen’s opinion was prejudiced by his ideal of the physician-philosopher. A more objective attitude, more representative of public opinion is found in the adviceof Archibios concerning the training of young surgeons in the first century. “Since life is short and the art long, as Hippocrates says”, Archibios thought that they should concentrate, ” from the beginning on the more necessary things”, such as types of dressings, use of sponges, etc. They should leave to scholars the “extraneous problems” such as “What is surgery?”; “Is it better than dietetics?” etc. “These questions are not pressing.”

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See also The Shift of Medical Education into the Universities

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