By Danièle Cybulskie
To picture medieval medicine is to picture screaming patients being bled or cauterized, perhaps biting some sort of leather belt or other. While bleeding and cautery were definitely part of the medieval medical tradition, there were many other remedies to be found, some surprisingly modern.
At first, the responsibility for healing a community fell to one or two local healers, whose knowledge of medicine was often passed down from generation to generation. Although some of them may have been literate enough to read the few medical treatises that were around, such as the Materia Medica, it is more likely that their healing ability stemmed from their knowledge of the world around them, past experience, and tradition. Following the rise of the universities, the care of medieval people was taken out of the hands of laymen, and only those with a license could practise. As I mentioned in my post about medieval education, the university which was the hub of medical knowledge in the Middle Ages was in Salerno, Italy, and it drew its students from all over Europe.
Despite their prejudice against other religions, medieval Christians were forced to concede that it was the Muslim community who held superior medical knowledge. Many of the medical treatises of the Greeks were in Arabic translation long before they were ever translated into Latin (the language of learned Europeans). As a result of this, and many discoveries of their own, Muslim doctors were revered for their healing ability.
Women’s health was, for the most part, left to women, until the doctors’ guilds prevented women from (officially) practising. Unfortunately, the licensed, male doctors were often less successful with their female patients, having learned their art from church-sanctioned schools which regarded women as inferior, and many of their bodily functions as inherently sinful and unclean. Female healers still existed, but one of the main reasons we know about them is because of charges brought against them for practising medicine.
It may surprise you to learn that surgery was performed by barbers, not doctors. In fact, the famous red-and-white barber pole that you see represents this part of barbers’ history. The red represents blood, and the white, bandages. (How’s that for cocktail conversation?) I imagine the reason that barbers would have doubled as surgeons is simply because they had more occasion than anyone else to have razor-sharp blades (and yes, that pun was intended).
Most medical advice in the Middle Ages was DIY, in that patients were prescribed cures that they would administer themselves. Cures often involved herbal remedies combined with words, written or spoken, secular or religious. (The written word was considered to be especially powerful, since so few people were able to write.) Patients would be advised on when, how, and with whom to gather the ingredients, as well as what should be said as the ingredients were collected and combined. You can easily find many of these medieval cures and remedies through a simple Google search.
Before we dismiss medieval cures as being superstitious and ineffective, we should take a closer look at them. Rather than stumbling around in ignorance, medieval people were very aware that the power to heal was embedded in the plants that surrounded them. For example, the bark of the willow tree has been used to dull pain for thousands of years. Although we may not realize it, we are still using the same essence in synthetic form: we now call it Aspirin. Similarly, scientists in the modern world are studying the effects of prayer on healing, with interesting results; religious incantations, coupled with a belief in their healing power, may be more effective than we realize.
I thought the nice, quirky image at the top of this post on medieval medicine would be one from the World Treasures of the Library of Congress website depicting medieval urine analysis. Doctors could consult this handy-dandy chart to diagnose illnesses based on urine samples collected from their patients. Even in the medical community, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: British Library MS Harley 4379 f. 125v