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Medicine in Medieval Times

Aug 17, 2007
Oh, how fortunate the medical field is with its modern conveniences. You have the Internet to share knowledge on, digital imaging equipment to render your CT scans, and every gadget and gizmo up to and including "the machine that goes bing!" (a Monty Python reference to you new folks!). You have accredited universities and publicly-funded laboratories.

But how long the human race had to grope in the dark before finally arriving at our present enlightenment! You may even feel a sense of pity for a particularly bright mind that would have been living in the 16th century, shaking their heads over the "four humours" theory here and the astrology charts there, bleeding patients to restore their balance... and all the while with that nagging suspicion in the back of their mind: "There has to be more to this that I'm just not getting!" It would be quite fun to travel back in time and clue some of them in. Doubtless they'd say something like, "No wonder I've lost so many patients! There really isn't anything to alchemy the whole time! I knew it!"

But actually, they weren't quite as frustrated as all that, even if they did have poor luck with the occasional trepanation and the glum discovery that there was, in fact, no insanity-causing stone in the head to remove. Oh, yes, trepanation, the drilling of holes in the skull, was a common practice. No less than Hippocrates had given specific directions on the procedure based on its origin in the Greek age, and Galen elaborates on the procedure as well. At one burial site in France with an assumed date of 6500 BC, 40 skull had trepanation holes out of the 120 found. Many people survived this procedure and lived on for many years, able to regale their grandchildren with their unique cranial modification.

Alchemy itself was actually a very noble pursuit... in most cases. The whole business with turning lead into gold might have been a creative way to extract financing from kings, to then be applied to real research. Yet the alchemist's contributions to science are significant! Much of chemistry owes its roots to alchemy, and the studies of medicine, astronomy, geology, and even physics got some boost as well. Since alchemists also spent a lot of time seeking the Panacea, the cure-all to every human ill, there is some cross-over between alchemy and medicine.

Alchemists are in fact the closest thing we have to the originators of the modern scientific method. After years of alchemists being more stage magicians than scientists, one Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) helped to cast alchemy into a new form by promoting the use of observations and experiments to learn about the human body. He demonstrated sneering contempt for the charlatans of his trade, rejecting both Occultism and Gnosticism in favor of Hermetical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies. In this manner, he is considered to be the tie-in between ancient practice and modern science, laying the path for the future accomplishments of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

You don't get far in discussing medieval medicine without running into the four humours. The four humours, who were not a British pop band which combined Beatles rhythms with Monty Python lyrics, were the foundation of accepted medical practice all the way into the 19th century. The four humours, bodily fluids which regulated all functions, were Black Bile (Melancholic), Phlegm (Phlegmatic), Blood (Sanguine), and Yellow Bile (Choleric). Any sickness, be it psychological or physical, was attributed to the humours of the body being in an unbalanced state, with too much of one and not enough of the other. The solution was always to cut open the body and bleed off the excess fluid.

It took them centuries to think of trying herbs. Originally, the Church handed down the doctrine that God had made a cure for each ailment, and all that remained for mortals was to match up the herb to the disease. But even at this idea, quite a bit of fumbling around was needed before they had the system sorted out. At first it was thought that plants which looked like a body organ had to be the treatment for ailments of that organ, and so skullcap was prescribed for headaches, lungwort for tuberculosis, and so on. Monasteries took to keeping an herbal garden on the church premises, and clerics of the time had this primitive form of an apothecary resource from which to draw cures. Sometimes they picked a plant which did nothing, and sometimes they got lucky and discovered another kind of aspirin.

Of course, modern medical graduates already know the origins of the peculiar symbols of medicine; with the twined snakes and the mortar and pestle and all. This should serve as a constant reminder: even though we've made a lot of progress in our discoveries of the world around us, we will still have much farther to go. Perhaps the doctors of 5000 years in the future will likewise look back on our time with pity for our primitive understanding of medicine!
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