Just how different was healthcare in the middle ages?

Just how different was healthcare in the Middle Ages? 

York Medieval Press authors shed light on the reality of medieval medicine. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about medieval medicine. In the popular imagination, it’s mostly superstition and quackery. Scholarship on health and healing in the Middle Ages paints a far more complex picture. We asked researchers to share their favourite discoveries about this period, and what modern medics might learn from historical healthcare. 

“The medieval period was not a ‘dark age’ for medicine – there was a broad landscape of healthcare and people’s experiences of ill health and healing then provide fascinating insight into lived experiences of the period.” – Ruth Salter 

Throwing lard at a dog  

Perhaps we should get this out of the way first: it is true that some methods used in medieval medicine were a little exotic. 

“Oxford Bodleian MS Rawlinson C814, a fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman medical compendium, contains many short ways of predicting the course of an illness. One instructs that the sick person’s feet should be rubbed with lard and the lard thrown at a dog. If the dog eats the lard, the patient will live; if not, they will die.” – Jo Edge 

“Geoffrey Launde, a Dominican, treated knight, Sir John Trussell, who indulged in too much sex so causing a broken vein in his kidneys or bladder — his expensive (but successful) treatment involved shavings of ivory, pearls, coral and emerald.” – Peter Murray Jones 

Body and soul 

In the Middle Ages, the church played an important role in providing care and advice, and it was considered important to look after the soul, not just the body.   

“From the 13th to the 16th century friars were actively engaged in healing, even gynecology and surgery. They also wrote and compiled texts on medicine. Church law tried to insist souls were far more important than bodies. In practice friars acted as preachers and confessors but often also advised on how to stay healthy and tried to cure illnesses.” - Peter Murray Jones 

“Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, a reformist preacher in Prague, turned a former brothel into a religious community, which he called Jerusalem. Milíč set up this community to explicitly resemble a hospital, but instead of treating the physically ill, he treated the most sinful in society, namely the former sex workers.” - Patrick Outhwaite   

Health and power 

Like today, different social groups were not equally well served by medicine in the Middle Ages, but medical knowledge was not only for the professionals. 

“I came to realize that it’s relevant to analyze how these educated men talked about themselves in terms of descent and environment, in their own smaller imagined communities. Given that they were dwelling at centres of power, their ideas affected policies and practices of power.” – Claire Weeda 

“Many people outside of healthcare were knowledgeable about theories of health and the ways in which doctors treated patients. People owned medical texts and educated themselves on the subject. A more active engagement with medicine today would perhaps lead to less disaffection and distrust of doctors and medical authorities.” – Patrick Outhwaite 

Healthcare contexts  

Medical knowledge and technologies, and the societies in which they exist are always changing. Human nature, less so.     

“Many diagnoses, while useful and valid, are nevertheless social constructs, dependent on time and place. Take OCD, a condition I have had since I can remember and a diagnosis I find useful. Some people have applied this modern diagnosis to past figures, for example Martin Luther, who could be said to have suffered with religious doubt. But this elides important contexts: doubt was a central feature of devout Protestantism. You could probably diagnose every fervent Protestant who left life writing in this time with OCD! So care is needed.”Jo Edge 

“Anyone reading about people’s reactions to the Black Death (or any other big disease event in the past) could very easily be reading about people’s reactions to Covid-19. Modern healthcare providers need to remember that human nature is much more static or slow moving than technological advances and that people’s fears and instincts need to be taken into consideration much more than may be the case.” – Lori Jones 

Jo Edge, Lori Jones, Peter Murray Jones, Patrick Outhwaite, Ruth Salter and Claire Weeda are all authors and editors of volumes in the York Medieval Press series Health and Healing in the Middle Ages, edited by Peregrine Horden and Sara Ritchey. 

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