Continuing from my last blog post on medicine during the High Middle Ages, this blog post still follows the similar format, covering medicine during the Late Middle Ages in Europe, the Middle East and China. While doing my research, I was surprised by the extent of which Islamic Medicine influenced Western medicine. Therefore, a significant portion of this blog post is about medicine in the Middle East.
Late Middle Ages
As a lasting influence of the Crusades, trade and communication between the European world and the Middle East increased drastically. The wisdom of Islamic medicine (the science as well as the philosophies) from translated medical texts was incorporated into mainstream Western medicine.
Despite various advances achieved earlier in the High Middle Ages, in the year 1347, Europe was heavily struck by the deadly disease: the Black Death (or the bubonic plague). Spread by infected flea, this deadly contagious disease wiped out more than half of the European population. One contributing factor to the spread of the disease was the unsanitary condition of medieval cities– a cause that was not well-understood by doctors at that time, resulting in ineffective treatments such as diet modification, usage of essential oils and prescription of elixirs attempting to cure the contagious disease. Because of the lack of medical understanding of the disease, people panicked and turned to religion. (Medical)
Medicine in the Islamic world continued to develop and expand, making significant contributions to the field of medicine during the Islamic Golden Age.
Ibn Al-Nafis, an Arab physician, is considered “the Father of Circulation/ Circulatory Physiology for his important writings and anatomical discoveries. In his most famous book– Sharah al Tahreeh al Qanoon (Commentary on anatomy of the Canon of Avicenna), he made detailed description of the pulmonary circulation of blood which contradicted Galen’s widely accepted description that the blood is passed from the left to the right ventricle through invisible pores in the septum.
Ibn Al-Nafis believed that the blood flows from the right ventricle through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, then flows through the pulmonary vein to reach the left ventricle. His pioneering discovery contributed to later development in the understanding of the circulatory system and was 300 years before the observation of William Harvey in Europe, who had previously been credited with the discovery of pulmonary circulation. (Akmal)(“Ibn”)
A large number of Bimaristans, or hospitals, were built in Islamic cities. Surgeries such as those to remove cataracts and treat trachoma, cauterization as well as various sutures were frequently performed. The structure and concepts of these hospitals closely resemble those of modern hospitals, having separate wards for males and females, an organized system of medical records as well as standard protocols for institutional and personal hygiene (Majeed). Medieval Islamic doctors also went above and beyond merely treating the physical. General wellness and dermatology were given considerable attention. Bathing culture continued to be an essential component of people’s social life and an important contributing factor to the improvement of general hygiene. (Williams)
Under the umbrella of the Song Dynasty, Chinese medicine continued to thrive, making new progress, especially in the fields of pediatrics and gynecology. At the same time, exchange of medical knowledge between the East and West reached its peak. Medical texts and materials from Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and the Middle East were frequently exchanged via trade routes, resulting in the incorporation of foreign knowledge and practices into Traditional Chinese Medicine and the other medical traditions’ adoption of Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. (“神农氏”)
In Islamic Medicine, herbal drugs imported from China via the Silk Road were frequently prescribed to patients.
This article explores in-depth the interactions between several traditions of medicine such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Traditional Arabic and Islamic Medicine, Ayurveda and Kampo–tradition of medicine with basis in Traditional Chinese Medicine but adapted to Japanese culture (Azaizeh).
This temporarily concludes my research on medieval medicine in three representative regions. Overall, medieval medicine in Europe experienced a stagnant state during the Dark Ages and revitalized during the High Middle Ages before being heavily struck by the Plague, while Islamic and Chinese medicine were able to develop under relative stability and prosperity.
In the next blog post, I will look at medicine during the Renaissance era, specifically the influence of the arrival of the printing press on publication of medical texts in Europe and the decline of the Islamic Golden Age.
This video is about Ibn Al-Nafis, the forgotten physician mentioned previously in my blog post. The rediscovery of his manuscript describing pulmonary circulation strengthened my belief that history is never a static field of study. It is constantly updated by new and surprising discoveries.
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“Ibn al-Nafis ابن النفيس – the Medical Genius who the world forgot.” Youtube, uploaded by ILM FILM, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbaYGmhUi4Q.