What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?

What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?

By Peregrine Horden

Social History of Medicine, Vol.24:1 (2011)

11th century English miniature. On the right is an operation to remove hemorrhoids. On the left a patient with gout is treated with cutting and burning of the feet

Abstract: The medical writings of early medieval western Europe c. 700 – c. 1000 have often been derided for their disorganised appearance, poor Latin, nebulous conceptual framework, admixtures of magic and folklore, and general lack of those positive features that historians attribute to ancient or later medieval medicine. This paper attempts to rescue the period from its negative image. It examines a number of superficially bizarre writings so as to place them in an intellectual and sociological context, and to suggest that the presumed contrast between them and their ancient and later medieval counterparts has been wrongly drawn.

Introduction: ‘If one surveys the state of medical knowledge in late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, it is deplorable.’

How to tell if a sick person will die? One way was copied somewhere in France around the year 800. ‘Take the tick of a black dog in the left hand and go into the sick room, and if, when the sick man sees you, he turns himself towards you, non euadit [he's “a goner”]’. Alternative techniques immediately follow. One of them requires wiping the sick person with a lump of lard and throwing it to a dog in an unfamiliar neighbourhood (or an unfamiliar dog: the Latin is ambiguous). If the dog eats the lard, the patient will live.

What is wrong with early medieval medicine? Such material might perpetuate its ‘eye-of-newt’ image among the general public. But why does it elicit epithets like ‘deplorable’ from scholars? In the essay quoted above, Gerhard Baader’s exposition is dotted with verdicts such as ‘primitive’ and ‘unsophisticated’ and references to ‘low standards’. These are ‘anonymous Vulgar Latin texts’ (though, mercifully, not the one just summarised) ‘full of superstition and folk medicine’. Baader is only a few degrees milder in his vocabulary than those historians of the last century who saw in early medieval medical texts, with their supposedly mindless copying of sterile formulae, clear signs of cultural deliquescence. This medicine still needs defending.

Definitions first. By early medieval medicine, I mean the medicine of western Europe in the period c. 700–1000; that is, predominantly, Carolingian and post-Carolingian Europe. Its texts come to us in Latin. With the important exception of the Old English, the vernacular material is negligible in size. Among the Latin texts are our canine oracles. Any discussion of early medieval medicine must face the challenges that they and their kind present—newts and all.

Those challenges take three forms: textual, sociological, conceptual. The main one comes from the surviving manuscripts—well over 160 of them. These manuscripts seem to be the fullest representation we have of the medicine of the age. And yet, as we shall see, their texts so often resist our attempts to work with them as individuals, and to generalise about them as a corpus. Unsurprisingly, then, we do not quite know how to edit or read them. This is, secondly, because it is hard to reconstruct the conditions in which the manuscripts were produced and read. We cannot readily supply any given text with a clear personal context in the wider history of medicine and healing. We lack that kind of ‘sociological’ evidence. The third challenge is conceptual. The most basic terms we want to deploy—‘text’, ‘use’, even ‘medicine’—are all problematic. In addition, what we read often raises in acute form such vexed categories as ‘magic’, ‘science’, ‘religion’ and their interrelations.

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