Medicine in the Middle Ages

By Tim Lambert

Medicine After the fall of Rome

After the fall of Rome in the 5th century the eastern half of the Roman Empire continued (we know it as The Byzantine Empire) and later Muslims took their knowledge of medicine from there. In the 9th century, a man named Hunain Ibn Ishaq traveled to Greece collecting Greek books. He then returned to Baghdad and translated them into Arabic. Later the same works were translated into Latin and passed back to western Europe.

In the Middle Ages, learning flourished in Europe. Greek and Roman books, which had been translated into Arabic were now translated into Latin. In the late 11th century a school of medicine was founded in Salerno in Italy. (Women were allowed to study there as well as men). In the 12th century, another was founded at Montpellier. In the 13th century more were founded at Bologna, Padua, and Paris. Furthermore, many students studied medicine in European universities. Medicine became a profession again.

However ordinary people could not afford doctors’ fees. Instead, they saw ‘wise men’ or ‘wise women’, whose folk remedies were probably, at least sometimes, better than medicine!

In the Middle Ages medicine was dominated by the ideas of Galen and the theory of the four humors. Medieval doctors were great believers in bloodletting. Ill people were cut and allowed to bleed into a bowl. People believed that regular bleeding would keep you healthy. So monks were given regular bloodletting sessions.

Medieval doctors also prescribed laxatives for purging. Enemas were given with a greased tube attached to a pig’s bladder.

Doctors also prescribed baths in scented water. They also used salves and ointments and not just for skin complaints. Doctors believed it was important when treating many illnesses to prevent heat or moisture from escaping from the affected part of the body and they believed that ointments would do that.

Medieval doctors also examined a patient’s urine. The color, smell, and even taste of urine were important. Astrology was also an important part of Medieval medicine. Doctors believed that people born under certain zodiac signs were more susceptible to certain ailments.

The barber-surgeons

In the 13th century, a new type of craftsman emerged in towns. He (or she because not all were male) was the barber-surgeon. They cut hair, they pulled teeth and they performed simple operations such as amputations and setting broken bones.

In the Middle Ages, the church operated hospitals. In 542 a hospital called the Hotel-Dieu was founded in Lyon, France. Another hospital called the Hotel-Dieu was founded in Paris in 651. The number of hospitals in Western Europe greatly increased from the 12th century. In them, monks or nuns cared for the sick as best they could. Meanwhile, during the Middle Ages, there were many hospitals in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.

In the Middle Ages monasteries had sanitation. Streams provided clean water. Dirty water was used to clean toilets, which were in a separate room. Monks also had a room called a laver where they washed their hands before meals.

However, for most people sanitation was non-existent. In castles, the toilet was simply a long passage built into the thickness of the walls. Often it emptied into the castle moat. Despite the lack of public health, many towns had public bathhouses where you could pay to have a bath.

From the mid-14th century, the church allowed some dissections of human bodies at medical schools. However, Galen’s ideas continued to dominate medicine and surgery.