Jews and Healing in the Middle Ages: The Harmonisation of Jewish Beliefs with Theories and Practices of Different Western Medical Traditions

15th century depiction of Jewish menJews and Healing in the Middle Ages: The Harmonisation of Jewish Beliefs with Theories and Practices of Different Western Medical Traditions

By Carmen Caballero-Navas

Paper given at the Conference on Religion and Healing and The Second Meeting of the Asian Society for the History of Medicine (2004)


Abstract: In this paper I shall discuss how western medieval Jews integrated medical knowledge and healing practices alien to their own beliefs, trying to conciliate them with their own values and customs, and providing them with their religious ideas and identity. I will discuss these processes at two levels: intellectual ideas regarding natural philosophy and healthcare expressed and transmitted through written medical texts; actual practice and the interaction with people of other religious communities, as witnessed in written sources.

Indeed, practical texts often show the interaction between members of Jewish and Christian communities in actual practice. For example, Christian and Jewish women appear to have shared similar knowledge and have used the same techniques regarding childbirth. It has been shown by historians that despite the differences with regard the use of plants (used according local availability), the techniques found in Western Hebrew texts were not different to those included in Latin texts (and Arabic). The similitude in remedies and techniques might be explained if we consider that, while the theory and notions in physiology are in general textually transmitted, techniques and recipes are more likely part of actual experience and belong largely to the province of orallity. In fact, there is evidence – for example – that Jewish midwives attended Christian women in labour, and vice versa, despite the prohibitions of the Church. This kind of interaction was a sure source of exchange of healing knowledge, and it is in the origin of the common substratum that we often discover in magic formulae and other healing methods and procedures included in sources of different provenance. Jews integrated these common practices, but it seems that they maintained their religious and cultural identity through the resource to Hebrew and to their own cultural background, as show the continuous allusions to practical Kabbalah in magic healing.


During the Middle Ages, natural philosophy and medicine developed in close contact, since the former explained nature and elaborated theories on the body and its functioning that were the theoretical basis for learned medical practice, and had a considerable influence upon healing practices in general. Some of the notions and concepts developed by natural philosophers were easily assumed by Judaism, while other collided with basic Jewish beliefs. I am especially interested in understanding how Jewish authors adopted and adapted ideas and theories regarding questions that were deeply embedded in Jewish culture and were regulated by religious laws, such as, for example, sexuality, menstruation and abortion.

In short, this paper will discuss the “judaization” of medieval western medicine, as a process through which medical ideas and concepts, as well as healing practices, were received, and integrated or refused, by Jews. I shall pay especial attention to the role that their religious beliefs had in the shaping of their medical knowledge and practice.

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