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Medieval Medicine and the Roman Empire


Like any profession or area of study, medicine has developed and changed over the years. From the earliest of times, it has involved with a little bit of basic science mixed with a little bit of magic or hope. Medieval times were not any different. Transitioning from the Roman Empire and into the Renaissance, medicine met a confusing time in which it tried to reestablish itself and work with the powers that be of that time. The Christian Church was becoming a powerhouse that found itself in a struggle with the practice of medicine. Medicine, during the Middle Ages, was a mixture of science, superstition, and spirituality that was both feared and encouraged by the Christian Church.

As the Roman Empire faded into the annals of history, the Christian Church rose up to take its place as the leader of Europe. It was a struggle against barbarians, kings, and the infidels as well as a struggle with itself and society. This brought the Church face to face with the practice of medicine and all the dangers that it posed.

Science was still in development. Christendom was a place that called for all to put their faith in God and trust in Him instead of trusting man or nature. Science took some of the wonder out of nature and broke it down into rational ideas. Science is defined as “the state of knowing” or “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” It was area of study that tested the laws of nature and sought to prove theories and laws. It was also an area that struggled with rational explanations of the Biblical tradition and doctrine. Science was a study that could trace its origins as far back as the Ancient Greek Empire, a much longer history than the Church could claim.

During the Middle Ages, the science of medicine was an attempt to imitate the ancient world which was the Golden Age of civilization. Science as knowledge obtained through observation and scientific method had not taken root in Medieval Europe as it had taken in the Ancient Romans and Greeks cultures that were worshiped and idolized. Ancient Greeks ventured into the science through the studies of Hippocrates who laid the foundation for medicine that we study and use today. These studies were absorbed into the Roman Empire, both East and West, as the Greek Empire fell. Advancements were made as the Empire grew. When the time came for the great Western Roman Empire to fall, many of the Roman medicinal practices and teachings were lost to the Western Roman Empire. Much of the Roman and Greek teachings, including medicine, were preserved and expanded on in the Eastern Byzantine Empire which was the last vesture of the Ancient Roman Empire instead of Europe where Rome once ruled. Ironically, it would be the Arabs that would give Europe its foundation for medicine.

It was around the fifth century that Greek medicinal material began to be translated by the Arabs as Greece was not the language of the classics anymore; Latin had taken over that noble position. The transcripts were copied from Greek into Latin which opened the door for more to be able to read and acquire the ancient knowledge. Once the material was translated where men could study them in earnest, medicine began to move forward once again. The most advances made during the Middle Ages came from the ninth and tenth centuries by the Arabs who “continued to be the most important contributors to medicine.” The Crusades opened the door to the transference of knowledge from the East (Arabs) to the West (Christians). A whole new world was opened up to Europe with advances in education and science that the world had not seen since the minds of Athens dared to question what they saw. The Arabs took the Greek knowledge and began to test what they read and experiment. They documented their own results and added them to the Greek scientific knowledge.

What Medieval Europe did was to just take the Arab advancements along with the Greek texts at face value. Europe tried to recreate the ancient civilizations through their literature and not going beyond what they learned from the texts. They saw no reason to improve on the eras that were deemed perfect. The knowledge they acquired was rarely looked at any deeper than actions to be admired and imitated. Testing that knowledge and adding to it would not sweep through the European society until the Renaissance when men dared to challenge all authorities including that of the Church.

Proof of this knowledge has been found in archeology which has revealed medicinal literature dated from around the eighth century that had been translated into the more readable Latin. With no printing press to aid in the copying of medicinal literature, all of these translations were copied by hand. As the texts entered Europe, unfortunately, it was the same material being copied over and over instead of new discoveries being made and written about. The European masters of medicine during the early Middle Ages were not interested in making new discoveries or experimenting as their Arab counterparts. Each found their own Greek and Roman text that they perceived as the best and most authoritative that they taught from it. They did not waver from the texts they viewed as authoritative. This was a major contributor in hindering the growth of European medicine. It kept medicine restricted to single texts instead of being treated as a deep and wide art that could be explored. Europe had copies of ancient manuscripts, but putting all of that teaching to practice was something different. Methods and material were not always easily obtained by medieval society. Those that could read the ancient texts and/or their translations were attempting to mirror a culture that did not exist and that could not successfully be emulated. Staying in the past helped create a world that was interested yet suspicious of medicine. Looking to advance medicine meant venturing into a realm that was untested by history and therefore dangerous to all, especially the Church.



Sources:


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.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Graf. All rights reserved.
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