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Medical Practices in the Middle Dark Ages

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The Middle Ages in Europe was an expansive period of time spanning from 476 AD to 1492, periodically referred to as the dark ages; due to the fact that minimal knowledge has been obtained regarding this era. Originating after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and proceeded by the Renaissance – pharmaceutical knowledge of any reliability was scarce.

The rejection of human dissection by church authorities in the 12th and 13th centuries prevented the cultivation of knowledge about anatomy and consequently the awareness of what went on inside the body stagnated. The infamous pandemic that was the Black Death occurred during the dark ages. Collectively including three plagues: bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic, medical cures varied with differing rates of success. Popularized by Galen (a Greek physician), bloodletting spans back to the ancient Egyptians when they misrepresented hippopotamuses red sweat for blood, believing that it aided in distress. A barber surgeon undertook bloodletting; the procedure involved the using leeches to suck blood, or simply making an incision into a vein. This technique was believed to remove what they thought as ‘dirty’ blood. As well as forcing patients to vomit, doctors treated the buboes (inflamed and swollen bumps on the body; a symptom of the Black Death) with herbal concoctions spread over the open wound. Healing herbs during the Middle Ages were quite popular amongst doctors. Lungwort, lemon balm, marjoram, feverfew and wormwood are a select assortment of the herbs employed to treat such things as fevers, headaches, pain of childbirth etc. Leprosy was a feared disease of medieval Europe, and still exists today. So, contagious specialized hospitals called lepers were built to exclude the effected. Constructed outside towns to isolate, ‘lazar-houses’ were located in Harbledoen, Dover and Buckland. Members of the clergy often ran leper houses; treating the patients physical and spiritual health. Leprous individuals were given a mixture of gold symbolising purity, expecting it to aid humoral equality. In the Middle Ages, physicians regarded Galen’s Greek theory of the Four Humours still credible. This theory involved the concept that when one fell ill phlegm, yellow and black bile as well as blood – became unbalanced.

Throughout the first half of the Dark Ages, the majority of people practicing medicine were monks. Monks are the male equivalent of a nun; they dedicated their lives to the worship of the lord and resided in monasteries. Within the monasteries a type of hospital called an infirmary was kept, here nuns and monks admitted the ill from villages and towns. The objectification of women in the field of medicine reached a climax in the 1420’s, when John of Mirfield and leading doctors requested for a ban of women working in the profession. Sent to parliament, this quote from the petition displays clear prejudice and sexism towards females: “Worthless and presumptuous woman take over this profession. They possess neither natural ability nor professional knowledge. They make the greatest mistakes and thanks to their stupidity and very often kill the patients. They work without wisdom and without any foundation of knowledge”. Despite this, women treated the majority of sicknesses. The local wise woman was regarded as having vast knowledge of medicine and was called when the illnesses did not subside. During the early 11th century, university training for a physician became popular amongst wealthy citizens and continued to grow in the next 400 years. Schools such as Salerno and Bologna (both located in Italy) did not have large amounts of students and only four annually qualified to become a physician in the early 15th century.

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During the Middle Ages, superstition influenced the behaviors of the majority of the population. Irrational fears and beliefs caused by astrology and religion in particular, led to injudicious (by today’s standards) health care. Despite the ‘four humour’ theory providing causes of disease, there were inadequate explanations for others. This led some to give credence to supernatural origins. Physicians of the Dark Ages often kept a book titled the Vademecum. The contents of this book concerned a section with the affect that the stars have on the human body. It listed each astrological sign and which body part it ruled e.g. Pisces (or the two fish) rules the feet. Prior to constructing a diagnosis, a physician would take into account the planetary alignments. For example, when the moon was in Pisces a doctor would exclude the treatment of feet. John of Arderne was a respected fourteenth century surgeon whom believed in the importance of astrology in pharmaceutical studies. A quote by Arderne conveys his views on the zodiac and health: ‘The highest astrologers…state that a surgeon should ought not to cut or cauterize any part of the human body nor to bleed a vein so long as the moon is ruling that part”. Marco Polo (Polo was an Italian explorer, who travelled Asia along the Silk Road trade route from 1271 until 1295) referred to astrologers and doctors in the same context. Physicians throughout the fifth to late 14th century also credited the caladrius bird for determining the outcome of a patient’s recovery. In this practice, the bird was positioned at the foot of the bed of the ill. If the bird refused to look at the patient, the individual was deemed to die. On the contrary, if the bird looked at the patient, he would in fact make a recovery.

During the Middle Ages, medicine relied upon scientific and superstitious practices. Proceeding the fall of the Roman Empire, medical knowledge was (for the most part) based off surviving Greek and Roman texts, for example Hippocrates’ Corpus Hippocraticum. As well as old English ‘leechdoms’ that contained Anglo-Saxon medical remedies. These texts were kept in town monasteries because monks were able to read and write whilst the majority of the population was illiterate. The foundation of medical knowledge centred on Hippocrates and Galen’s Humoral Theory. The four bodily humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile) corresponded to the four classical elements of fire, earth, water and air. The Greeks and Romans believed that higher powers such as gods influenced their health, and Christianity adopted the same ideologies. Early Christians believed that Jesus could be wrathful; however, they also maintained the assumption that he loved and provided healing through the herbs and natural remedies. Many people associated monasteries with medicine, and would travel to such places in search of healing, prayers and restoration of humoral imbalances.

Although the majority of Middle Age medical practices have been discarded for practical use, a handful of aspects have remained. Hospitals are one of the most prominent and essential requirements of 21st century healthcare, and have been since they accelerated in growth during the crusades. In the Byzantium Empire and Europe hospitals were ran by monasteries. During this time, religion and health care were synonymous. Several hospital types were in use in medieval England.

An infirmary, the Spittle House, the Lazar House, maternity hospitals and asylums. Typically, they were large rooms or halls and had individual cubicles with additional private rooms. Prior to the thirteenth century hospitals had been quite primitive and were utilized as ‘rest’ centres. Among other things, pharmacies also originated in the Medieval times. Deriving from the Arabs when the first pharmacy was established 754. By the 12th century, pharmacies had sprung up over Europe. Today a pharmacy or chemist is a dispensary for the sale of drugs prescribed by either a general practitioner /other doctor or yourself. An extremely crucial medical achievement was the advancement of the caesarean section.

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Medical Practices in the Middle Dark Ages. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
“Medical Practices in the Middle Dark Ages.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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Medical Practices in the Middle Dark Ages [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Jun 10]. Available from:
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