Medieval Monkish Medicine: Scientific Before Science was a Thing

From Cambridge University Libraries: a 15th-century medical manuscript describing a diagnostic method: colors of urine along with their associated ailments. Via Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.
15th-century medical manuscript, showing colors of urine with their associated ailments.

Looks like word is getting around, among historians at any rate, that the “Dark Ages” weren’t an abyss of superstition and ignorance.

I see that as good news, and recommend reading the rest of Meg Leja’s Smithsonian Magazine article.

I’ve highlighted parts of this excerpt, and talked (briefly, for me) about the medical angle of post-Roman Europe under Respecting Ancient Authorities: Above and Beyond the Call of Reason.

Modern Medicine Traces Its Scientific Roots to the Middle Ages
“Contrary to popular belief, early medieval doctors relied on rational deduction to understand and treat disease”
Meg Leja, The Conversation, Smithsonian Magazine
(November 10, 2023)

“…The idea of ‘Dark Age medicine’ is a useful narrative when it comes to ingrained beliefs about medical progress. It is a period that stands as the abyss from which more enlightened thinkers freed themselves. But recent research pushes back against the depiction of the early Middle Ages as ignorant and superstitious, arguing that there is a consistency and rationality to healing practices at that time.

“As a historian of this period, which spanned roughly from 400 to 1000, I make sense of how the societies that produced vulture medicine envisioned it as one component of a much broader array of legitimate therapies. In order to recognize ‘progress’ in Dark Age medicine, it is essential to see the broader patterns that led a medieval scribe to copy out a set of recipes using vulture organs.

The major innovation of the age was the articulation of a medical philosophy that validated manipulating the physical world because it was a religious duty to rationally guard the body’s health.

“…Most intellectual activities in Northern Europe were taking place within monasteries, where the majority of surviving medical writings from that time were written, read, discussed and likely put into practice. Scholars have assumed that religious superstition overwhelmed scientific impulse and the church dictated what constituted legitimate healing—namely, prayer, anointing with holy oil, miracles of the saints and penance for sin.

“But ‘human medicine’—a term affirming human agency in discovering remedies from nature—emerged in the Dark Ages. It appears again and again in a text that monks at the monastery in Lorsch, Germany, wrote around the year 800 to defend ancient Greek medical learning. It insists that Hippocratic medicine was mandated by God and that doctors act as divine agents in promoting health. I argue in my recent book, ‘Embodying the Soul: Medicine and Religion in Carolingian Europe’, that a major innovation of that time was the creative synthesis of Christian orthodoxy with a growing belief in the importance of preventing disease.…”
[emphasis mine]

The “recent research” Meg Leja mentions is:

  • What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?
    Peregrine Horden, Department of History, Royal Holloway University of London; Social History of Medicine, Volume 24, Issue 1, April 2011, Pages 5–25 (published November 3, 2009)

Respecting Ancient Authorities: Above and Beyond the Call of Reason

Dominican doctor taking a pulse. From LJS 24, Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, Penn Libraries. (1225-1275)About post-Roman Europe, very briefly.

Back then, folks lacked the economic, legal and infrastructure advantages of being in the Roman Empire, or near its border.

Along with pretty much everyone else, Medieval Europe’s monasteries were self-sufficient. They grew their own food and provided their own medical care.

They also served as hospitals for nearby communities.

And they were centers of learning.

Monks and nuns translated and expanded old medical texts, often reorganizing the documents. They added tables of contents, removed useless information, and added results from their own research and practical experience.

Then the Renaissance happened.

By the 14th century, medical research had shifted from monasteries to outfits like the Paris Medical Faculty.

Parisian and other secular doctors of the 14th century apparently respected ancient medical texts. Maybe a little too much.

Their notion of “medical research” was coping large sections of treatises by folks like Hippocrates, Galen and Aesculapius.

Adding, changing, or removing nothing.

Then they’d apply the ancient philosophers’ medical procedures exactly, unsullied by monastic research.

I’ve talked about this, and the Saeculum Obscurum — a really rough patch in Church history — before, and probably will again. But that’s not what I’m doing for this week’s ‘Saturday’ post.

Finally, like I said, it’s nice to know that historians are reconsidering the Enlightenment spin on Europe’s “Dark Ages”.1


1 Saints, scientists, historians, and making use of medical knowledge:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Medieval Monkish Medicine: Scientific Before Science was a Thing

  1. Respecting the past is important, indeed, but it doesn’t lead to the present and future for no good change to happen.

Thanks for taking time to comment!