Medieval Medicine

Medieval Medicine

The medieval period is normally not
associated with advances in technology, nor with contributions that benefit
society. Yet, our medicine today owes much of its development to physicians
of that time. Medicine of that era was strongly influenced by superstition
and the doctrine of the Christian church, and did not have much foundation
for practical application.

The need for medicine in Middle Ages was
certainly great, considering the extreme amounts of plague and disease
prevalent during that time (Grigsby 2). Unfortunately, medical knowledge
of that day was of very little help (Margotta 68). Physicians had
no concept of disease causing bacteria or viruses. Unfortunately, it was
thought in that day that illness was either due to old age, heredity, or
immoderate living. Is was also believed that certain sins could affect
one\'s health (Grigsby 2).

Medical practice of the time revolved
around a concept called the "doctrine of the four humors". Diagnoses
of illness almost solely relied upon the examination of the human body\'s
four humors- blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each
of the four humors was associated with a specific body part and certain
elemental qualities. Blood was associated with the heart, and air.

Phlegm was associated with the brain and water. Yellow bile was associated
with the liver and fire, and black bile was associated with the spleen
and Earth. When one\'s bodily humors were in equilibrium, that person
was normally considered to be in good health. Sickness was
thought to be a result of imbalance of the humors (Gottfried 106).

Diagnosis, except in the few rare cases,
was usually based on the interpretation of the color and smell of the blood,
the smell and the color of the phlegm and, most commonly, on the
examination of the urine. There were countless methods of examinations,
each explaining how a detailed diagnoses of all types of illnesses could
be determined from the color and the odor of the urine and from the layers
of sediment in the collecting flasks. Cloudiness in the upper layer of
the collecting flask indicated that the origin of illness was in the head,
and lower level layers of cloudiness indicated declining conditions of
the bladder or genital organs. The diagnosis was often optimistically simple
(Margotta 66).

Medieval physicians had almost nothing
more than their interpretations of a patient\'s humors upon which to base
their diagnosis. Their ultimate objective was to restore equilibrium of
the humors to the sick patient. Physicians had a variety of ways
to do this, yet they often attempted to purge the cause of the ailment
from the body, by whatever means were deemed necessary (Gottfreid 106).

Bloodletting was very common (Margotta 66).

Bloodletting therapy was based on the
theory of opposites. Doctors believed diseases could be caused by excessive
amounts of body fluids. For its alleviation, bloodletting was the main
treatment. This procedure was thought to move the material causing one\'s
illness and make it pass from one organ to another, thereby making it easier
to eliminate. When blood was taken from the side of the body opposite
from where the disease was situated, it was supposed to relieve the patient\'s
plethora and pain. Detailed directions were given regarding the most
favorable days and hours for bloodletting, the correct veins to be tapped,
the amount of blood to be taken, and the number of bleedings required.

Blood was usually taken by opening a vein with a lancet, although bloodsucking
leeches were regularly used (Margotta 66).

Not all aspects of medieval medicine were
as particularly brutal as bloodletting. Pharmacy, or the prescribing
of drugs or herbs, was a major part of the medieval physician\'s cure.

Apothecaries were the pharmacists of the day; however, their role in medicine
extended further than simply the filling of prescribed drugs. In
many cases the Apothecary would actually prescribe drugs and give treatment
to a sick patient. Apothecaries usually had no training in the medical
field except as herbalists. They had little knowledge of the
workings of the human body or diseases that affected it. In fact,
since the herbs that Apothecaries used to make their medicines were usually
extremely expensive spices, most doubled as merchants (Gottfreid 108).

Physicians were the primary treatment
practitioners during the middle ages, yet into the 13th century, numerous
medical treatments were being conducted by a new and separate group of
people known as barbers, barber-surgeons, and surgeons. These new
groups increasingly took on the responsibilities of many types of invasive
and non-invasive procedures. These new groups did not receive their
training from universities, but from a hierarchy of apprenticeships regulated
by guilds. The contributions of their procedures however, were significant
(Duin 26).

Only a few surgeons undertook complicated
operations and then only for life-threatening or