Patient, heal thyself

Early medieval medicine was decidedly a mixed bag. On the one hand a decent practitioner could mend a broken bone, bind a nasty wound, and give you the best attention possible in the event of fever. There would be a decent chance your healer could rely on a book of herbal remedies from the ancient Greeks. Not too bad.

On the other hand, your healer was strictly bound by the medical theories of those same ancients, theories which began and ended with the infamous “humors” of the body. The herbal remedies had been copied many times over, usually by scribes who had never seen the plants being referenced. And indeed, those plants grew in the eastern Mediterranean, not northern Europe. Other medical ‘texts’ are filled with references to things like how to tell if a person is going to die via holding a tick from a black dog in the healer’s left hand.1.Peregrine Horden, What’s Wrong With Early Medieval Medicine?, Social History of Medicine, v.24, n.1, pp.5 – 25. Be sure not to miss the discussion of “vulture medicine.”

Read morePatient, heal thyself

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Peregrine Horden, What’s Wrong With Early Medieval Medicine?, Social History of Medicine, v.24, n.1, pp.5 – 25. Be sure not to miss the discussion of “vulture medicine.”

A pox on all our houses

Life in the 8th century was hard. Endless labor, the constant threat of famine after too much or too little rain, the occasional Viking or Saxon raid, and of course, disease, which became ever more prevalent after malnutrition. We of the last few generations tend to forget that for virtually the entirety of human existence death came much earlier than it does today, and disease played a very large part in that. Famines did occur, and of course war, but it was disease that struck us down in droves, whether in plagues so virulent even the isolated annalists recorded them, or mere families succumbing to a stray germ. For anyone who got sick there were no antibiotics, no real understanding of anatomy, nothing but a couple of herbal books from the Greeks, and a 7th century encyclopedia to consult. And that only if you were lucky enough to find someone who could read, and possessed those volumes.

That encyclopedia is the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, who wrote it sometime before 636, when he died. Book IV is a surprisingly comprehensive and rational discussion of medicine and disease. He includes descriptions of acute and chronic illnesses, and a separate chapter for “Illnesses that appear on the surface of the body.” All told Isidore gives a reasonable description of more than eighty different maladies, before discussing various remedies, scents, and oils, and “The instruments of physicians.” It is a fascinating read, particularly to imagine oneself at the bedside of some failing soul, scouring your Isidore for some clue. Of course, you could also say that virtually all of human medical knowledge was contained within six pages of text, but let’s not quibble.1.Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.

Read moreA pox on all our houses

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.