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The Church and Medieval Medicine

Guest Author - Rebecca Graf

Modern day society sees medicine as a science to be studied and practiced. The science side of medicine is typically accepted easily. During the Middle Ages, science was not yet defined and accepted readily by the Christian Church which was developing a strong hold over society. This was a time in which the fallen Roman Empire was trying to resurrect through the face of the Christian Church. What was not known could destroy it before it rose from the ashes and reconquered Europe.

Much of the Church’s fear of the scientific form of the medicine stemmed from the source of much that scientific knowledge - the infidels, the Muslims. The Muslims were the enemy of the Church. This made medicinal knowledge suspicious in the eyes of the Church leaders. Upon analysis, any medical knowledge could be deemed dangerous. Nothing was to put a chink of the Christian armor. Not all science was considered wrong. Some science was seen as acceptable as long as it could not hurt the Church’s position or undermine the Christian Church’s doctrine. Otherwise, it was seen as heretical and dangerous. Science then became a dangerous pool to dive into. Some accepted the scientific aspect of medicine with open arms, while many others within the Church fought against it out of fear and uncertainty. St. Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the early twelfth century was one of those that openly fought against the science of medicine. He preached to all that “the use of physical medicine and consultation of specialized medical practitioners by monk patients” was to be avoided. Science was looking at the body and diseases from a natural viewpoint. Looking at nature was something that the Church did to worship God, but too often the Church saw the focus on nature and natural explanations as being too dangerous. Giving a scientific explanation for a disease gave power to nature and not to God. Worship could easily be transferred to nature. Fear rose up within the Church over this aspect.

If the science supported the Christian faith or was not deemed threatening to the Christian doctrine, it was accepted and even became a major part of the Church’s life. As the ancient texts became available to learned clergy, numerous monks learned much about medicine. Much of this knowledge centered around plants and herbs that were used in the healing process. Cultivation of herbs became quite common within monasteries. These herbs led to extensive gardening expertise and to detailed botany knowledge. As those that knew this information spread out mainly in the form of missionaries, the knowledge spread with them throughout Europe. The science of botany was perfectly acceptable as it helped give glory to God by looking at the wonder of His creation and using it to heal the body. Detailed herbal manuscripts were created by those in the Church which are still in existence today.

An understanding of medicine was not restricted to the Church. Those that absorbed the knowledge of medicine were from a wide spectrum of society. There was no stereotypes or limits to gaining medicinal knowledge as “the medieval medical practice embraced men and women, serfs and free people, Christians and non-Christians, academic and tradespeople, the wealthy and the poor, the educated and those ignorant of formal learning.” Anyone could study medicine. It was during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that medicine began to be an actual profession. This meant that medicine was entering more areas of society and bringing about an awareness of health care and practices. Actual professionals began to appear during the Middle Ages. They studied the ancient texts and made it a focus of their live and their livelihood. In the fourteenth century, the number of medical professionals increased measurably.

The majority of those that possessed the knowledge of medicine were monks and nuns. Living near communities and having the needs of the community in front of them was reason enough “to induce western monks [and nuns] to acquire simple medical skills, to collect medicinal recipes, and to cultivate culinary and medicinal herbs.” The practice of medicine gave a new venue to administer to the community and to perform other work. Hospitals began to appear under the supervision of the church, but they were not in the form that hospitals are seen today. The Medieval hospital was a place of “money-lending, liturgical practice and intercession, for pastoral work, a retirement house for elderly and well-to-do burgesses,…accommodation for clerics and students.” This brought medicine further into the church which made some even more fearful of medicine and others more accepting. The variety of those who practiced medicine left the door open for more than science to enter the field of medicine.


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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.
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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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