Monastic Medicine: A Unique Dualism Between Natural Science and Spiritual Healing
Silverman, Benjamin C.
Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal, No.1 (2002)
In the early Middle Ages, the excessive prevalence of illness and disease guided the practice and development of medical care. As a result of poor living conditions and the technical inadequacies of medieval medicine, disease was a constant menace in Europe and often controlled people’s daily lives. In response to illness in general and to large-scale epidemics of dreaded diseases such as plague, leprosy, and influenza in particular, individuals and societies began searching for new, more effective means of medical practice. In this context, medicine expanded into a large and important occupation and encompassed a variety of professional and folk practices, ranging from natural, physical-based medicine to religious medicine, magical medicine, and herbalism.
One of the most important medical developments of this time was the introduction of medieval monastic hospitals, which arose as a source of medical care in the early Middle Ages. Monastic health care was a result of the work of well-educated monks with access to historical documents containing medical information and with a calling to serve God by helping people. Between 500 and 1050, monastic hospitals served as centers of hospitality in medieval society, offering treatment to monks, pilgrims, paupers, and even nobility. Although the monks, being primary care givers, often focused on natural, physical-based medical practices, including well-respected techniques such as general cleanliness in providing care for the sick, bloodletting, and herbalism, their physical treatments appear to have been of mixed and nonessential value. As demonstrated in monastery design and historical church records, a unique feature of the monastic medical system was its use of these physical treatments as a manifestation or extension of spiritual or religious rather than natural knowledge-based medicine.