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Superstition and Medieval Medicine

Guest Author - Rebecca Graf

Science did not have the power that superstition had over Medieval society. The unknown allowed superstition to fill in the gaps and give explanations for events: “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Much of medicine involved a measure of superstition as much of anatomy was unknown leading to high levels of superstition. The limited amount of anatomical knowledge made prognosis “reduced to lists of signs or divination.” Chemistry was also not completely understood which meant the use of herbs and medications was open to superstitious beliefs. Charms and words used as incantations were mixed with the use of herbs in the belief that they gave the medicine extra power.

What was not understood was that there was science behind these acts. Even the religious incorporated these practices as “prayers and charms are offered without apology.” The naïve beliefs of many of those in medicine can be found in many of the texts that survive. Very knowledgeable and intelligent people believed in many of the folklore and herbal lore that existed at the time. In an attempt to understand the menstrual cycle or menses of a woman, the medicinal teaching said that “on account of the excessive heating of the blood caused by bile pouring out from the gall bladder, which makes the blood boil to such an extent that it is not able to be contained in the veins.” They also believed that a “burning cupping glasses [should] be placed between the breasts so that they draw the blood upwards.” Superstition was considered a science by many.

St. Hildegard was a renown German nun in the twelfth century. Throughout Europe and the church community, Hildegard was known for her wisdom and knowledge of herbs. She taught many how to use herbs and wrote a manuscript on herbs of such a size that had never been seen before. She reviewed the properties of grain, plants, and flowers as well as the many uses. She stated that certain herbs have the virtue of very strong aromas, others the harshness of the most pungent aromas. They can curb many evil, since evil spirits do not like them. But there are also certain herbs that hold the form of the elements. People who try to seek their own fortunes are deceived by these. The devil loves these herbs and mingles with them.” Even one as wise as a saint looked at the superstitious and spiritual use of herbs. In describing Ginger, St. Hildegard described it as “injurious and should be avoided as food by both a healthy person and a fat person because it makes the person unknowing, ignorant, lukewarm, and lustful.” Folklore was not exactly forbidden in the Church. It was when folklore went deeper into the spiritual realm that the Church began to fear that aspect of medicine.

Many of these superstitions led to the use of witchcraft in medicine. Charms and incantations were used in the administration of medicine as well as a belief in demons and witches causing diseases. Numerous Medieval people saw diseases being caused by “the entrance into the body of demons or evil spirits.” Many accused witches of looking at individuals with the ‘evil eye’ to cause diseases or to push the demons into the body. There had to be an explanation for the disease. If God can cure a disease, then the devil must be able to cause it.

During the Crusades, German knights saw God as giving power to herbs, objects in nature, and even in the words spoken by the knights. This allowed the knights to use incantations to help in the healing of wounds that occurred during battle. Much emphasis was placed on the magic of herbs. The belief that the herbs contained such power brought the tabooed form of magic into the field of medicine, but many like the knights saw the incantations as being Christian in origin which made them acceptable. God made nature which meant that power could be found in nature when the right words called forth the power.

The Church took this need of having the supernatural involved in healing and made a version of it acceptable within the church. The veneration of saints brought the focus of miracles back to the Church and God. Saints were thought to give victory in war, help in everyday life, miracles, and even to cure people. This was encouraged by the Church. The focus was taken off the medical professional and nature. As the practice of venerating saints increased, shrines were erected. Anyone who desired to ask the saint for a cure or a special favor would take a pilgrimage to the shrine no matter how far away it was. Upon arriving they gave gifts to the monasteries where most shrines were located. Obviously, the Church would not discourage such practices.


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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