By W.J. MacLennan
Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Vol.32:1 (2002)
Introduction: After a long period of stagnation which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages were characterised by major academic achievements in medicine. This was stimulated by the translation of Classic and Arabic treatises into Latin between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. The establishment of universities throughout Europe resulted in medicine being studied as an academic discipline, and in the formal training of physicians.
These developments were of less relevance to the general populace. Most physicians treated kings, princes and important magnates, and had little contact with the lower orders. The latter probably were fortunate in that medical training remained bound to the archaic orthodox principles of Hippocrates and Galen. If there was a ‘development’, it was to link treatment to the motions of the stars and planets.
When most common folk fell ill they consulted a local healer, either a man (‘cunning man’), but more usually a woman (‘cunning woman’), with a practical knowledge of medicinal herbs, magical amulets and charms. She usually had more experience of herbal medicines than her neighbours, but spent most of her time involved in the same agricultural and family activities as the others. Unlike modern witchdoctors in many parts of Africa, she rarely was wealthy and received no official recognition as an ‘alternative health practitioner’.
Some monasteries may have had access to the pharmacopoeias of classical scholars such as Discorides, Celsus, Scribonius and Galen. They also may have grown a few medicinal plants, but these were rarely used in the treatment of residents, far less the general public. Most villagers and townsfolk had to fend for themselves.