Medicine during the Middle Ages
Similar to the cycles in an economy, the development of modern western medicine has never been a straight line. Influenced by cultural beliefs, political climate and the general global dynamics, medicine since the demise of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance period went through abrupt halts and astonishing accelerations.
Unlike medicine from ancient cultures detailed in my last blog post, which appear to be distant and antique, medicine from the 5th to the 15th century bears more similarities with modern medicine.
The Medieval Period in Europe, also known as the Middle Ages, is divided into three periods– the Early Middle Age, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. In this blog post, I will examine medicine in different parts of the world (mainly focusing on Europe, the Middle East and China) during the Early Middle Ages.
Early Middle Ages
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe was invaded by the so called “barbarians” (the Vikings, Goths, Vandals and Saxons) and entered the Dark Ages– a period of social conflicts and chaos. Little progress in arts, sciences and medicine was made due to the lack of communication between territories controlled by the feudal lords as well as the dominance of the Catholic Church in all aspects of social life. Autopsies and dissections of corpses were banned and treatment methods went back to the use of spells and incantations along with few herbal remedies provided by monks and nuns.
The works of Claudius Galen– one of the most respected physicians in the Roman Empire– were blindly accepted, even though much of his writings on human anatomy were based on educated guesses from dissections performed on animals.
While Europe was experiencing prolonged suffering from the rule of the Germanic tribes and the Catholic Church, the Islamic world was in the middle of the Golden Age in which the field of medicine, literature, philosophy, alchemy, astrology and mathematics were rapidly advancing.
Building upon past knowledge acquired from Greece and Rome as well as from traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, Muslim physicians made significant advances in patient treatments, surgical procedures, medical education and research. Even though religion was an integral part of the Islamic society, people were granted permission by Allah to seek cures for illnesses.
In China, medicine went through a period rapid growth during the Tang Dynasty with the publication of the first official pharmacopoeia and the foundation of the first Imperial Medical Academy. Students at the Imperial Medical Academy were required to study classics on medicine from past dynasties as well as specific clinical treatment methods such as acupuncture and cupping. Before enrolling in the prestigious medical institution, students from all over the country had to undergo rigorous and competitive examination process. In addition to the Imperial Academy, local medical schools were established under the order of the emperor in an effort to educate more doctors to serve the general public.
One of the most influential physicians in the history of Chinese medicine– Sun Simao– was born. He not only contributed to the advancement in treatment methods such as acupuncture, moxibustion, but also treated deficiency disorders and emphasized medical ethics for physicians.
The upcoming blog posts will continue to focus on medicine in Europe, the Middle East and Asia during the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. While conducting research online and reading books, I was fascinated by the brilliant physicians whose contributions guided the development of medicine– Hippocrates, Claudius Galen, al-Razi, al-Zahrawi, Ibn al-Nafis, Nicola Bertuccio, Guy de Chauliac, Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, Sun Simiao, Zhang Zhongjing and many more. After going through the timeline of medicine, I would like to delve deeper into the specific philosophies, practices, discoveries and inventions of each physician.
Beeden, Alexandra, et al., editors. The Definitive Illustrated History. New York, DK, 2016.
Goldiner, Sigrid, editor. “Medicine in the Middle Ages.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jan. 2000, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medm/hd_medm.htm
“What is European Medieval & Renaissance Medicine?” Medical News Today, Healthline Media UK, www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/medicine/medieval-and-renaissance-medicine.php
“神农氏” [“Shen Nong Shi”]. 神农, June 2003, www.shen-nong.com/eng/history/index.html