MEDICINE IN MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE EUROPE
Greek Medicine Returns to the West
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered the Dark Ages. All forms of science and learning, including medicine, retrogressed. This was the Age of Faith, and faith was contrary to knowledge and reason.
In medicine, the works of Galen and Aristotle survived, since they were snctioned by the church, but were blindly accepted as dogma. The true spirit of scientific inquiry had died, and was no longer there.
The Crusades and the High Middle Ages
The Crusades were a violent, destructive and misguided period of European history, to be sure, but it wasn't without its fringe benefits. Islamic science and medical knowledge began to flow back into Europe, first as a trickle, then later as a flood. The medical works of Averroes, Rhazes and Avicenna were translated into Latin, and used as texts in the medical schools that were being established all over Europe.
Of these, the oldest and most famous was the medical school at Salerno, in Italy. So great was its reputation that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick decreed, in 1121, that only physicians who had been trained in Salerno could work in his court.
Salerno also had the distinction of producing the first woman obstetrician and gynecologist, Trotula of Salerno. In an age of rampant patriarchy and sexual repression, Trotula considered it her sacred duty to educate male physicians on the nature of the female body and how to care for it. She wrote a book on women's diseases and health issues entitled Passionibus Mulherum Curandorum, or "Curing the Diseases of Women".
The medical school at Salerno was followed in short order by the school at Montpelier in southern France. By the year 1300, there were over a dozen medical schools throughout Europe.
The physicians trained in these medical schools worked as court physicians throughout Europe, and treated the nobility and the aristocracy. The common man couldn't afford their serevices, and had to make do with the local folk healer or barber-surgeon.
The Church responded in kind to this growing influx of medical learning from the East and established religious orders and monasteries throughout Europe, which were also centers of learning and of medicine. The medieval monks and friars cultivated medicinal herbs in their gardens, prepared herbal medicines in their apothecaries and officinas, and cared for the sick as an expression of their Christian charity and compassion.
One of the most medically distinguished was the Benedictine Order. They prepared a famous digestive tonic called the Benedictine liqueur. Its main ingredient, Carduus benedictus, or Blessed Thistle, derives its name from its associations from this order.
The Christian brothers in these orders were master herbalists and pioneers of botany. Their influence can be seen in the Latin botanical names of many medicinal herbs. If the second name of the Latin binomial is officinalis or officinale, it was used by the medieval monk apothecaries in their medical dispensaries, or officinas. Plants of the Mustard family are called Cruciferae, or "cross-forming" because, when viewed from the bottom end of the stalk, their fourfold branches form a cross, the symbol of Christianity.
Medieval physicians placed great emphasis on exercise, a healthy diet, and healthy living conditions. They often prescribed laxatives, diuretics, fumigation and cauterization, herbs, and bathing, or hydrotherapy. Surgery, generally used only as a last resort, was performed on tumors, fistulas, hemorrhoids, gangrene, cataracts and scrofula.
Of all types of surgery, venesection, or bloodletting, was the most common. Although excesses and abuses of this practice were common, bloodletting does have its beneficial, curative applications. Medical science is starting to rediscover the therapeutic value of venesection and medicinal leechcraft.
Uroscopy, or urine analysis, was an important and highly developed diagnostic method in medieval medicine. So common was this prctice that it was almost routine to bring along a jar or flask containing the morning's urine sample when visiting the doctor.
There's a humorous little anecdote that illustrates just how precise the science of uroscopy was:
A wealthy baron, instead of collecting a sample of his own urine, decided to play a trick on his doctor, and instead collected a sample from his maidservant. Upon inspecting the sample, the physician boldly declared:
"Almighty God has decided to bless us with a great miracle: that a man should give birth to a child!"
Unbeknownst to the baron, his maidservant had conceived, and was pregnant.
In the medical schools of medieval Europe, the dissection of a human cadaver was a basic initiatory ritual in the study of anatomy. Anatomy really came into its own as an important foundational science for the theory and practice of medicine.
Medicine in the Renaissance
By the Renaissance, the flow of classical and Islamic science and learning back into Europe had become a flood, and a new spirit of openness and humanism was in the air. Classical medical doctrines concerning the Four Humors, the Four Temperaments, and the like were all the rage.
This intellectual curiosity and appetite in the popular mind for classical notions and concepts was exploited by writers and dramatists like William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe, who made frequent poetic allusions to the humors and temperaments in their works. In fact, it's impossible to adequately understand or appreciate their writings without some knowledge of classical medical terms like Sanguine, Melancholy, Choleric and the like mean and imply.
The Renaissance also saw a reawakening of the spirit of scientific inquiry in medicine. The teachings of Galen, Aristotle and other medical authorities of antiquity were no longer blindly accepted as dogma, but open to investigation and experimentation, and revision or expurgation if necessary. Andreas Vesalius, the great Renaissance anatomist, pointed out the errors of Galen concerning the pulmonary circulation and the oxygenation of the blood, for example.
Sometimes it took the shock therapy of medical iconclasts and renegades like Paracelsus to shake medicine out of its medieval slumber of blind faith in the authorities and tradition of antiquity. Although Paracelsus' theories were highly unorthodox and controversial, they did open the eyes of the medical profession to alternative ways of medical thinking. Paracelsus' motto was: "Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself."
For uroscopy anecdote and most of the information in this article: Ancient Healing by Kevin V. Ergil et al, Copyright 1997 by Publications International Ltd. pp. 91 - 126
For information on Trotula of Salerno: Trotula of Salerno
For information on Paracelsus: Paracelsus