Kill or Cure? – on Medieval Medical Practice

RE: September 1, 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine article by Elma Brenner

The grace of health is conspicuous only by its absence when we fall into sickness unexpectedly in the course of our earthly lives. Throughout the history of human civilizations, there have been many interesting ways of curing illnesses peculiar to different wells in sound body,” went to Temple of Aesculapius, the demigod born into Apollo and Coronis, a beautiful mortal, later raised by the wise and kindly old centaur named Chiron, in eager hope of seeing the demigod in their dreams to listen to his prescriptions for the maladies, primarily consisting of a mixture of herbs and cooling potions followed by divine incantations. In this regard, the people in the Middles Ages were not more different than their ancient pagan Mediterranean counterparts. Moreover, their medieval attitudes toward sickness and a general well-being was no less incongruent than those of ours as Brenner takes us to the time period in this scintillating article.

Pace our prevalent perception of backwardness of its culture and science in the tenebrous reign of the Church, there was a multitude of practical treatments for maladies as well as preventive health cares that appeared to produce efficacy to certain desirable extents. Just like their 21st century progeny, medieval physicians emphasized on the importance of preventive health cares, such as “Rapid stair climbing” for 3 or 4 times a week to strengthen cardiovascular endurance, a moderate diet, good sleep, and other types of physical exercise to promote general health of the medieval folks. In fact, it seems to me that such measures may seem as a wise way of preventing an individual from falling into a serious type of sickness that might have required of a physician a diagnosis of which he would not have yet known at that time,  or even if he had known it, he would not have known the cure.

It is also very interesting to know that during this period of time, a physician was to diagnose causes of ailments and then referred a patient deemed necessary for a surgery to a surgeon whose status was considered less than a physician’s by dint of the nature of the physical exertions that involved unpleasant sensory aspects, such as bloodletting, collecting urine, and most dreadful of all, cries and screams of the patients under the surgeries without anesthesia. All of these physical “drudgery” or “legwork” was strictly undertaken by a surgeon under the guideline of a physician who offered prevention medicinal advice based upon a patient’s case-history, observation of pulse, urine, and blood. Thenceforth, at the instruction of a physician it was an apothecary, a modern day equivalent of a pharmacist you see in Duane Reade or Rite Aide, who completed the physician’s job by supplying the prescribed medicine to the patient.

Since the medieval times was undeniably under the aegis of the Church that functioned as the Divine Terrestrial Office with its authority imprinted in all aspects of life, a spiritual application of supernatural agency in the cure of sickness was de rigueur for a medicinal procedure. For example, the Church instructed the agnus dei to see a priest prior to visiting a physician who also often had some degree of medical knowledge. Moreover, in the practice of Couching, which was a cataract surgical procedure by which a surgeon moved the cloudy lens on the iris of the patient to the bottom of the eye with a gold/or silver needle, 4 recitations of Pater Nostra –  the Lord’s Prayer-  were administered.

In view of the above, it seems to me that except for the absences of antibiotics, surgical methods, and anesthesia, some of the practices are still existent, such as the use of uroscopy, which is the examination of urine to determine a patient’s conditions, a general medical procedure involving the trinity of physician, surgeon, and pharmacist, and the advocate of preventive health cares are very much similar to those of the 21st century counterparts. Hence, I am in agreement with Brenner that it would be our fallacy of human ego to flatly deride or discredit the medieval medical practices as backward or ludicrously primitive or even barbarous and proclaim our modern superiority. For were we pitchforked backward in the Middle Ages, perhaps we would understand their ways of working the cure apropos the medieval epoch. But then the prospect of going through  a surgery minus anesthesia – not even a dosage of Vailum – makes me thank God for the fact that I wasn’t born in that time.



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Stephanie Suh

I write stuff of my interest that does not interest anyone in my blog. No grammarians, no copy editors, no marketers, no cynics are welcome.

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