Medicine in the English Middle Ages

Medicine in the English Middle Ages

Medicine in the English Middle Ages

Medicine in the English Middle Ages


This book presents an engaging, detailed portrait of the people, ideas, and beliefs that made up the world of English medieval medicine between 750 and 1450, a time when medical practice extended far beyond modern definitions. The institutions of court, church, university, and hospital--which would eventually work to separate medical practice from other duties--had barely begun to exert an influence in medieval England, writes Faye Getz. Sufferers could seek healing from men and women of all social ranks, and the healing could encompass spiritual, legal, and philosophical as well as bodily concerns. Here the author presents an account of practitioners (English Christians, Jews, and foreigners), of medical works written by the English, of the emerging legal and institutional world of medicine, and of the medical ideals present among the educated and social elite.How medical learning gained for itself an audience is the central argument of this book, but the journey, as Getz shows, was an intricate one. Along the way, the reader encounters the magistrates of London, who confiscate a bag said by its owner to contain a human head capable of learning to speak, and learned clerical practitioners who advise people on how best to remain healthy or die a good death. Islamic medical ideas as well as the poetry of Chaucer come under scrutiny. Among the remnants of this far distant medical past, anyone may find something to amuse and something to admire.


The triumph of modern scientific medicine in contemporary Western culture has been so complete we often forget that, before science, the person wishing to preserve or regain good health was presented with many alternatives, none of which was entirely satisfactory from a modern point of view. The ways of our early ancestors may seem foolish to us: herbalism, philosophical advice, magic, or so-called folk remedies—all of which seem to be based on luck, superstition, or error. But no person living in a prescientific culture could be expected to count scientific medicine among his or her many healing choices. If we find the medieval medical patron’s obsession with uroscopy or astrology, for instance, to be bizarre or amusing, and wonder why anyone took such methods seriously, then we must also remember that these methods were, like the medical patron, firmly rooted in a particular time and place. In this context, astrological medicine is best understood not as irrational and erroneous but rather as a complexsystem of explanations, many of which could be justified empirically or historically, based on a particular society’s beliefs about the functioning of the natural world.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his Structural Anthropology, studied the role of the shaman, or traditional healer, among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Vancouver region. He postulated what he called the “shamanistic complex” to explain the remarkable success of the shaman among his or her people. This complexconsisted of the healer, the afflicted, and what he called the “social consensus.” The belief of the healer’s audience (which included the afflicted) in the success of the healing practice was more important than any other factor in determining the secure place of a particular shaman in his or her culture. Whether a particular practice “really” worked, then, was much less important than the audience’s belief that it had. A healer, LéviStrauss concluded, “did not become a great shaman because he cured his patients; he cured his patients because he had become a great shaman.”

The work of Lévi-Strauss and others confronts one of the most troubling aspects of the history of medicine in prescientific culture: why did people adhere to practices that modern science finds nonsensical? The anthropologist answers that this happened because of the social consensus that such practices were effective. And the social consensus of any culture must derive from the complexities of the culture itself.

In any culture, the reputation of the healer is vital for these practices to flourish. Medicine, like poetry, required an audience to grow. Medical learning in medieval England from about 750 to about 1450 is the focus of . . .

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