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Medicine and Health in the Middle Ages


The Middle Ages, the period in history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance (roughly 500 to 1400 A.D.), was very much a time of darkness for modern civilization. It was a time in which the church as well as superstition heavily influenced the culture, which in turn stifled development in many areas. One of the fields that remained the most stagnant during medieval times was that of medicine. Because of the church's increasing role in all areas of society during this time, a lot of the previous gains made in the medical field by the Greeks and Romans were abandoned and forgotten.


Doctors were often hard to come by during these times. They could usually be found only in big cities, and the poor or those living in rural areas had to travel long distances to be able to seek treatment. In those areas without access to doctors, there was often a monastery or herb gardener charged with medical care. It was not uncommon for barbers also to double as doctors or dentists; this practice continued into the Renaissance and beyond. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that any regulations were put into place regarding who could and could not practice medicine.



In medieval times, individuals could study in small communities from other doctors of the period, but such education was limited and usually inaccurate. To determine what was wrong with a patient, doctors would focus mostly on the bodily fluids, called "humors." Each of the four bodily fluids (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) corresponded to elements in the universe (fire, earth, air, and water, respectively). Depending on what was observed in one's fluids and what an excess or deficiency of those fluids was assumed to represent, the doctor would make a diagnosis.


The four humors theory focused on maintaining a balance within the body. It was believed that at certain times of year, one humor or another had a greater presence in the body. Spring was associated with too much blood, summer with too much yellow bile (urine), autumn with too much black bile (stool), and winter with too much phlegm. If someone was suffering from disease in the spring, for example, a doctor would likely have used the process of bloodletting, or draining some blood from the body. In the autumn, if a person had digestive issues, they might suggest a change in diet. Some treatments were harmless, while others were life-threatening.


A medieval pharmacist, or apothecary, as they were more commonly called, either was a doctor or an herbalist. In the later periods of the Middle Ages, a separation was beginning to take place between the practice of medicine and pharmacy, and eventually, physicians were no longer able to concoct medicines on site: They could only prescribe the remedy and dose, and the herbalist would do the rest. Most medicines were derived from plants. Herbalists would use different seeds, bulbs, fresh or dried leaves, and other plant parts to come up with concoctions meant to treat different ailments. In many cases, they would prescribe medicine based on the shape of the plant they were using; a heart-shaped leaf would be used to treat a suspected heart problem, for example.



Disease and sickness were very common in the Middle Ages. People lived in very close quarters and did not understand the importance of hygiene. Diseases that were most widespread were smallpox, leprosy, measles, typhus, and, perhaps most famously, the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. Almost all diseases at the time had unknown causes. This made treatment a bit of a guessing game and prevention very difficult.


The bubonic plague in particular left many doctors stumped during this time period. The plague caused black splotches all over the body as well as fever and other flu-like symptoms. It is known now that the disease was spread by fleas that traveled on rats, but the people at the time did not know how the plague was caught. Civilians and doctors thought that it was contagious and set up quarantines, but fleas from the rats continued to spread the disease regardless. The plague ended up killing more than a third of the population of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.


To try to cure the plague, doctors tried an extensive range of treatments. Some prescribed rose water and vinegar to be scrubbed all over the body. Others would cut open the infected buboes (lymph nodes), drain them of any fluid, and apply dried human waste to the site. Doctors also commonly bled patients to try to rid the body of disease. Witchcraft was resorted to when these treatments didn't work.



The Middle Ages were definitely an uncertain time for the practice of medicine. The combination of restrictions from the church, the following of outdated and inaccurate practices from the Greeks and Romans, and the dangerous treatments administered resulted in the unsuccessful treatment of many ailments and a high mortality rate among those who fell ill. Nevertheless, many of the mistakes made by doctors during this period served as a learning experience for physicians of the Renaissance that followed, and advances were able to be made in the field that paved the way for modern medicine.




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