Medieval Medicine And Modern Medicine Essay Research

Medieval Medicine And Modern Medicine Essay, Research Paper

The logic and principles of medieval medicine shaped those of Modern medicine. Never was there a more efficient method perfected, so much that it remained through history through so many hundreds of years. Today?s concepts of diagnosis, relationships with the church, anatomy, surgery, hospitals and training, and public health were established in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle ages, the modern idea of society taking responsibility for its poor with public health care was established. Many of these ideas stemmed from religious groups.

Although the Christian church was very involved with public health, it wasn?t the only church embracing science. In fact, medicine and public welfare today more closely resembles Muslim systems and treatments during the Middle ages than the Christian system. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is to care for those less fortunate than themselves. Many Muslim rulers interpreted this by setting up hospitals in cities all over the Islamic world. By the 12th century, the city of Baghdad had 60 hospitals. Other Muslim hospitals were spread throughout Cairo and Damascus and the Spanish cities of Granada and Cordoba. London was just then building its first hospital. Not only more hospitals existed in the Islamic Empire than in Europe, but also the medical treatment was usually far superior. Our hospitals today still closely resemble those that existed in Muslim society during the Middle ages. Muslim hospitals had separate wards for different diseases, trained nurses and physicians and stores of drugs and treatments for their patients. Most hospitals taught medical students and were inspected regularly to ensure that they were up to standard. Students received a certificate to prove they had attended and from AD931 onwards all doctors in Baghdad had to pass an examination to get a license to practice. Modern medicine is almost entirely dependent on these concepts alone!

Meanwhile, in London in the Middle Ages, if there was a major epidemic it was more than likely that you would die a horrible death. The Black Death wiped out 1,000,000 people in Britain alone. There was however, hope. An early form of what we call welfare today developed. Poor people couldn?t afford to see a doctor. A single doctor’s fee was usually about a month’s wages for a laborer. For the utterly impoverished, a common alternative was the local apothecary.

Also, our notion of pharmacies is mostly based upon the apothecary from whom it evolved. The Apothecary primarily made and dispensed medicines. Shops could be found in most cities. Prescriptions were made up under the orders of a physician. We would not have a pharmacy, as we know it today without the Middle aged method.

Public health may have remained a pool of disease was it not for the reforms made in the middle ages Though the town authorities tried their best, London was probably the most unsanitary town in England. Slowly, however, rules were made and enforced. In 1301 four women butchers were fined for throwing the blood and guts of slaughtered animals into the street. By 1370, 12 teams of ‘muck’ collectors combed the streets for animal and human excrement – money could be made out of it by selling it to local farmers (which helped further spread the various diseases?)

London wasn?t sanitized in a day, though. There was usually only a big hole for a toilet that several houses needed to share. When it became full it slopped over the sides and ran down the streets. Chamber pots were often dumped from an upstairs window. Needless to say, being a pedestrian must?ve been decidedly bad. (Yucky). In 1372 this was made illegal.

Without the changes in acceptance towards scientific medicine made in the Middle Ages by religions, (or especially those towards scientific diagnosis), our population today would probably be far sicklier and more ignorant. (Not to mention much smaller) When Islamic and Christian religions embraced logical medicine during the Middle Ages, medicine was finally free to be practiced openly with the church. In Muslim countries, medicine was regarded as very important, and doctors held a high status. In this period, doctors began to move away from a spiritual explanation for disease towards a system based on observation and diagnosis. They were influenced by the texts of Claudius and Hippocrates.

Many of the medieval concepts that were developed further, to last through today were based on simpler Greek attitudes. Hippocratic found it important to study all human diseases within their reach, including the very difficult, and at the time, inexplicable sicknesses of sudden seizures and madness. They not only discovered exterior causes that interact with human anatomy and physiology, but they also used therapies that reversed a diseased condition with the same principles. “Opposites cure opposites”(cold for fever) was a far cry from the former “like cures like” (leeches, bloodletting?) of sympathetic magic. They formulated questions that the West has continued to ask questions logically, such as “What makes this person sick? Do women get sick in the same way as men? ”

What is important here is the fact that these medical writers are asking not “Who causes this sickness” but “What stimulus causes this sickness in response?” The theory of the Four Humors developed by these greeks was an important step forward because it encouraged doctors to look for natural causes of disease and to provide natural treatments. Doctors in the Middle ages believed that the body contained four humors or fluids: phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile, and if these humors lost their natural balance, illness would result. Arguments that appeal to process (instead of blaming a careless or evil deity) still remain today.

A few health conclusions made in the Middle Ages still hold ground today. A good example of a current concept that exists today which evolved from a medieval concept would be sterility in hospitals, and the prevention of infections. The medieval term ‘miasma’ means ‘a poisonous vapor or mist?. These dangerous vapors were really infectious dusts from dried manure. Through a logical system of trial and error, however, villagers developed masks containing sweet smelling flowers, (or posies) which they found that, once worn to better tolerate the smell, also hindered the disease. This system of reasoning is one upon our current system is based. The theory led to the more general ‘Bad Air theory’, which lasted until the 1860s and 1870s. Although this was incorrect, it encouraged cleanliness and paved the way for public health reform. Florence Nightingale believed in ?miasmas? and became famous for her work in making hospitals clean, fresh and airy. The theory also made scientists interested in decaying matter and this eventually led to the identification of germs, and not much later, sterilization of surgical instruments.

These concepts increased the success of, and the development of surgery, and anatomical knowledge. Islamic doctors came to be seen as authorities in the field of surgery, because their awareness of the importance of sterile instruments caused a high success rate. By 1300 this led to many surgeons demanding the right to study anatomy and, therefore, to be able to dissect dead bodies. Islamic surgeons could perform limited eye operations, set bones, stitch wounds and treat tumors to some extent. Midwives performed some early Caesarian operations in the Middle Ages in Europe, although Caesarian deliveries would be only usually performed as a last resort if the mother were dead or dying. Today, surgery is more successful only because we have developed upon the same ideas that were established so long ago.

Not only good aspects of medicine were shaped by medieval life. While most ideas and beliefs that remain from the Middle ages are beneficial, (and necessary for our survival) medieval superstition has also survived the ages, to some extent. Frightening epidemics like the plague were seen as God’s punishment for people’s sins, or tests for questionable souls. Some of these notions may sound silly, or ludicrous, but as hard as it is to believe, as recently as the 1980s, many people saw the outbreak of AIDS as God’s judgement on homosexuals. The effect of the past on the future is ever present, and not escapable. Although we may not be fully aware of it, or be capable of accepting it, most of our medicinal techniques were indeed shaped by people who thought the world was flat.


Arano, Luisa Cogliati,

The Medieval Health Handbook:

Tacuinum Sanitatis, (New York: George Braziller, 1976).

Dahmus J.

Dictionary of Medieval Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1984.

CB 351 .D24 1984 REF

Dictionary of the Middle Ages . 12 vols. New York: Scribner, 1982-1989.

D 114 .D5 1982 REF


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