The Medieval Church's View of Medicine
Medicine has always perplexed man, and we are still learning about the human body and how it works. The body is so complex that it is hard to say if we will ever understand its many systems completely. Still, over time we have learned a huge amount of valuable information that people during medieval times would have loved to have.
With the coming of the plague, people during the medieval age were forced to reckon with health and the body. Below are some of the ways medieval practitioners approached medicine.
Role of Astrology
Especially after the Black Death, astrology became a major factor in medicine. Those that liked rational answers saw the mathematical aspects of astrology as a solid foundation for their approach to medicine. The zodiac controlled the various parts of the body and helped dictate when treatments should be administered and how.
The mass death of the Black Death and the seemingly unfathomable reason behind it led those of the middle ages to look for something solid and explainable, for what they were receiving from the church was broad and insufficient. Astrology was something that was based on the heavens where God lived and of what He created. By following the direction of the stars and planets, many felt that they were following God’s orders. Though God was ultimately the director of astrological beliefs, the Church saw it as worship and reliance on objects that were not God.
Medicine Wasn't of the Devil
What the Church did not fully understand was that behind all the practices of medicine including the charms, herbs, and astrology was a “real and practical knowledge of the art of medicine.” Charms accompanied other medicinal practices and rarely were used alone to heal. Herbs were based on the science of botany though this was not as obvious to many of the time. The science was there but misunderstood by many in power. Science was encouraged when it supported the doctrines and traditions of the Church, but was considered heretical or even satanic when it undermined or contradicted the Church.
Despite the periodic oppression by the Church, the science of medicine did advance as more exposure to the East. It was the discovery of the knowledge the Arabs possessed that helped to push Europe’s medieval practice of medicine. Medicine was not completely absent during the Middle Ages; it was just hampered. Many knew that there was more to medicine than astrology, charms, and incantations. They saw the need to “know the causes of sickness and health.”
Science, Superstition, and Spirituality
Superstitions can be found in Church writings, but too often the practice of witchcraft in conjunction with medicine caused many to shy away from anything that appeared superstitious. The practice of using the herbs was both encouraged and discouraged by the Church. When the administration of herbs was used with incantations, the Church saw this as non-Christian acts which of course was discouraged to the extent of being examined by the Inquisition. Yet, the superstition of looking to the saints for cures was the Church ordained medicinal practice.
Science, superstition, and spirituality were major components of the medicine practiced during the Middle Ages. The very aspect of each of these parts inevitably brought the Church into the picture. Methods of practicing medicine were feared by the Church when it could hurt it or encouraged by the Church when it could enhance its power and prestige.
American Medical Association. Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft. London: Burroughs Wellcome, 1912.
Barry, Jonathan and Colin Jones, ed. Medicine and Charity Before the Welfare State. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Collins, Minta. Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions. London: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
French, Roger. Medicine Before Science: The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Getz, Faye. Medicine in the English Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Green, Monica H. trans. The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
McVaugh, M.R. Medicine Before the Plague: Practitioners and Their Patients in the Crown of Aragon, 1285-1345. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Mirriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/, accessed March 26, 2011.
Porterfield, Amanda. Healing in the History of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Sina, Ibn. “On Medicine,” Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ source/1020Avicenna-Medicine.html, accessed March 20, 2011.
Siraisi, Nancy G. Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: an Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.
Von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard’s Healing Plants. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
Walsh, James J. Medieval Medicine. London: A & C Black, 1920.