Medieval Medicine by James J. Walsh, chapter name LATER MEDIEVAL MEDICINE


Medicine in the later Middle Ages, that is, from the tenth to the middle of the fifteenth centuries, was greatly influenced by the medical schools which arose in Italy and the West of Europe during this period. These were organized mainly in connection with universities, Salerno, Montpellier, Bologna, Paris, Padua, in the order of their foundations, so far as they can be ascertained. These university medical schools represented serious scientific teaching in medicine, and certainly were not more prone to accept absurdities of therapeutics and other phases of supposed medical knowledge than have been the universities of any other corresponding period of time. Five centuries represent a very long interval in the history of humanity, and provide opportunities for a great many curious developments and ups and downs of interest, all of which must not be considered as representing any particular generation or even75 century in the history of that time. The absurdities came and went quite as in more modern times; but all the while there was an undercurrent of solid medical knowledge, founded on observation and definite clinical research, superadded to the information obtained from the classics of medicine.


Even as early as the tenth century the thoroughly conservative teaching of Salerno in medicine made itself felt, and above all counteracted the Oriental tendencies to over- refinement of drugging, which had led to the so-called calendar prescription. This was the most noteworthy element in the medical practice of the later Middle Ages, but its significance has been dwelt on in the chapter on Salerno and the Beginnings of Medical History. While Arabic polypharmacy is the most striking feature of Mohammedan influence on medicine at this time, there were a number of Arabian and Jewish physicians who made a deep impression on the medicine of the later Middle Ages—that is, subsequent to the tenth century. Their work was felt not only in their own time, but for many subsequent centuries even down to and beyond the Renaissance, and they therefore must find a place in medieval medical history. This influence was exerted ever so much more outside of Italy than in the Italian peninsula, where the tradition of their contact with the original Greek authors still remained, and where76 they were making medicine and surgery for themselves quite apart from Arabian influence.


The more one knows about the conditions in Italian medicine the less question is there of Arabian contributions to it. De Renzi in his History of Italian Medicine makes it very clear that the Arabs exercised no significant influence either at Salerno or elsewhere. The Benedictines and Cassiodorus afford evidence of the study of the Greek medical classics in Latin translations. Muratori cites a manuscript which he had consulted in the Medicean Library at Florence, and which, though written between the eighth and ninth


centuries, says not a word of the Arabs and bears the title of “Abstracts from Hippocrates, Galen, Oribasius, Heliodorus, Asclepiades, Archigenes, Dioclis, Amyntas, Apollonius, Nymphiodorus, Ruffius, Ephesinus, Soranus, Ægineta, and Palladius.” These and not the Arabs were the masters of the Italians, and it was fortunate, for the world was thus saved many Arabian mistakes and their tendency to neglect surgery. Before Salerno began to exert its real influence, some of the Arabian physicians came to occupy places of prominence in the medicine of the time.


The most important of these was Avicenna, born toward the end of the tenth century in the Persian province of Chorasan, at the height of Arabian77 influence. He is sometimes spoken of as the Arabian Galen. His famous book, “The Canon,” was the most consulted medical book throughout Europe for centuries. There are very few subjects in medicine that did not receive suggestive treatment at his hands. He has definite information with regard to Bubonic plague and the filaria medinensis. He has special chapters with regard to obesity, emaciation, and general constitutional conditions. He has chapters on cosmetics and on affections of the hair and nails that are interesting reading. The Renaissance scholars wrote many commentaries on his work, and for long after the introduction of printing his influence was felt widely.


His Arabic colleague in the West was Avenzoar, to call him by the transformation of his Arabic family name, Ibn-Zohr. He was born near Seville, and probably died there, in  , well past ninety years of age. He was the teacher of Averröes, who always speaks of him with great respect. He is interesting as probably the first to suggest nutrition per rectum. His apparatus for the purpose consisted of the bladder of a goat with a silver cannula fastened into its neck. Having first carefully washed out the rectum with cleansing and purifying clysters, he injected the nutriment—eggs, milk, and gruel—into the gut. His idea was78 that the intestine would take this and, as he said, suck it up, carrying it back to the stomach, where it would be digested.


The bladders of animals were very commonly used by these Moorish physicians and by their disciples, and the profession generally, for generations, for a great many purposes for which we now use rubber bags. Abulcasis, for instance, used a sheep‟s bladder introduced into the vagina and filled with air as a colpeurynter for supporting the organs in the neighbourhood, and also in fractures of the pubic arch.


Avenzoar suggested feeding per rectum in cases of stricture of the œsophagus, but he also treated the œsophageal stricture directly. He inserted a cannula of silver through the mouth until its head met an obstruction. This was pushed firmly, but withdrawn whenever there was a vomiting movement, until it became engaged in the stricture. Through it then freshly milked milk, or gruel made from farina or barley, was to be poured. He had evidently seen cases improve this way, and therefore must have had experience with functional stricture of the œsophagus. He adds that some physicians believe that nutrition may be absorbed through the pores of the whole body, and that therefore in these cases the patient might be put in a warm milk or gruel bath; but he has not very79 much faith in the procedure, and says that the reasons urged for it are weak and rather frivolous. It is easy to understand that a man who could recommend manipulative modes of treatment of such kinds, and discuss questions of nutrition so sensibly, knew his medicine very practically and wrote of it judiciously.


Maimonides (  -  ) was one of these wise old Jews who quotes with approval from a Rabbi of old who had counselled his students: “Teach thy tongue to say, I do not know.” Knowing thus the limitations of his own knowledge, it is not surprising that Maimonides should have left a series of practical observations for the maintenance of health which represent the common sense of all time in the matter. Maimonides anticipated the modern rule for taking fruits before meals, as we all do now at breakfast, and so often as fruit cocktails at the beginning of other meals. He thought that grapes, figs, melons, should be taken before meals, and not mixed with other food. He set down as a rule that what was easily digestible should be eaten at the beginning of the meal, to be followed by what was more difficult of digestion. He declared it to be an axiom of medicine “that so long as a man is able to be active and vigorous, does not eat until he is over full, and does not suffer from constipation, he is not liable to disease.”


Salerno‟s influence was felt much more deeply on surgery than on medicine, as can be seen very clearly from the chapter on Medieval Surgeons—Italy. These great surgeons of the period were also the leaders in medicine—for almost needless to say, there was no separation between the two modes of practice—men were as a rule both physicians and surgeons, even though for us their most important work by far was done in surgery. Certain passages from the works of these great surgeons that have come down to us deserve a place in the treatment of the more distinctly medical questions of the time.


Lanfranc the great French surgeon‟s description of the treatment of the bite of a rabid dog is interesting. He suggests that a large cupping-glass should be applied over the wound, so as to draw out as much blood as possible. After this the wound should be dilated and thoroughly cauterized to its depths with a hot iron. It should then be covered with various substances that were supposed “to draw,” in order as far as possible to remove the poison. His description of how one may recognize a rabid animal is rather striking in the light of our present knowledge, for he seems to have realized that the main diagnostic element is a change in the disposition of the animal, but above all a definite tendency to lack playfulness. Lanfranc had manifestly seen a number of cases of true rabies, and describes and suggests treatment for them, though evidently without very much confidence in the success of the treatment.


The treatment of snake-bites and the bites of other animals supposed to be poisonous, or at least suspicious, followed the principles laid down for handling the bite of a mad dog. This was the case particularly as to the encouragement of free bleeding and the use of the cautery.


A characteristic example of the power of clinical observation of the medieval physicians, and one which illustrates much better than many of the absurd tales told as typical of their superstitious tendencies, but really representing that tendency always present in mankind to believe wonders, is to be found in how much they learned of rabies. Even in our own time there are many absurd beliefs with regard to this disease, with some denials of its existence and many grossly exaggerated tales, widely believed; yet the medieval people seem to have reached some quite rational notions with regard to it. Bartholomæus Anglicus is the author of a popular encyclopedia which was very widely read in the medieval period. He was an English Franciscan of the thirteenth century, who gathered together a lot of information and wrote a volume that for centuries after his time, even down to Shakespeare‟s boyhood, was popular in England.


Here is his description of rabies as he knew it. The most important element is his recognition of the uncertainty of the length of the incubation period, but it contains two other ideas that are very interesting, because medicine in subsequent centuries has come back to them over and over again. One is that free bleeding may remove the virus, and the other that the cautery may help in preventing the infection.


“The biting of a wood-hound is deadly and venomous, and such venom is perilous. For it is long hidden and unknown, and increaseth and multiplieth itself, and is sometimes unknown to the year‟s end, and then the same day and hour of the biting it cometh to the head, and breedeth frenzy. They that are bitten of a wood-hound have in their sleep dreadful sights, and are fearful, astonished, and wroth without cause. And they dread to be seen of other men, and bark as hounds, and they dread water most of all things, and are afeared thereof, full sore and squeamous also. Against the biting of a wood-hound wise men and ready use to make the wounds bleed with fire or with iron, that the venom may come out with the blood that cometh out of the wound.”


A very interesting development of therapeutics in the Middle Ages was the employment of the red light treatment to shorten the course and the83 severity of the fever in smallpox, and above all to prevent pitting; it was employed successfully by John of Gaddesden in the case of the son of King Edward II. Recent investigation by Cholmeley has shown that both Gilbertus Anglicus (  ) and Bernard de Gordon (  ) antedated John of Gaddesden in references to the red light treatment. All of these men were professors at Montpellier, showing that the medical school of the South of France was a rival in the use of natural methods of cure to its better-known predecessor of Southern


Italy. Curiously enough, the “Rosa Anglica” of Gaddesden, in which the reference to the red light is made, is deservedly characterized by Garrison as “a farrago of Arabist quackeries and countrified superstitions”; it well deserves Guy de Chauliac‟s bitter criticism of it as “a scentless rose.”


The idea included under the word autointoxication in our time—that is, that the human body has a tendency to produce poisons within itself, which act deleteriously on it and must be eliminated—was a favourite one during the Middle Ages. It became the custom in our time to have recourse to antiseptics or to surgical measures of various kinds for the relief and prevention of autointoxication. In the Middle Ages they thought to reduce its harmfulness at least by direct elimination, hence84 the use of drastic purgatives. It seems worth while remarking, however, that the employment of these did not come into general use until the close of the Middle Ages. Basil Valentine, if he really lived in the Middle Ages, and is not merely a name for a writer of the early sixteenth century, as modern historians seem inclined to think, suggested the use of antimony for the removal of the materies morbi from the body that has so much obsessed physicians for many generations. Antimony continued to be used down to the nineteenth century. It was gradually replaced by venesection, which was employed very strenuously during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in spite of the objection of such men as Morgagni, who refused to allow this mode of treatment to be used on him.


Venesection was succeeded by large doses of calomel, and the calomel era continued on almost to our own generation.


As a rule, however, the medieval physicians trusted nature much more than did their colleagues of modern history—that is, after the Renaissance until the present epoch of medical science began. It has always been difficult, however, for physicians to continue long in the persuasion that nature is a helpful auxiliary, and not a hampering factor to be combated. It is all the more to the credit of85 the medieval physicians to find, then, that in spite of many absurdities they continued for all the later centuries of the Middle Ages to extol the value of the natural means of cure.


I shall have much to say of John of Ardern in the chapter on Medieval Surgeons of the West of Europe, but he deserves a place also in the chapter on Medicine. Ardern‟s advice to patients suffering from renal disease, which is contained in a separate tract of his lesser writings with the title in an old English version of “The Governaunce of Nefretykes,” is extremely interesting, because it shows very clearly how long ago thoughtful physicians anticipated most of the directions that we now give such patients. Though we are inclined to think that any real knowledge of renal disease is quite modern, and above all has come since Bright‟s time, this paragraph of Ardern‟s shows how long before definite pathological knowledge had developed, careful clinical observation worked out empirically the indications of the affection. The paragraph is of special interest, because it contains the first reference to the possible danger that there may be for sufferers from kidney disease using the dark or red meats rather than the white meats. The tradition as to the distinction between the red and white meats has continued ever since his time, and though our modern chemistry86 does not enable us to find any such distinction between these substances as would justify the differentiation thus dwelt on, it has been maintained for no other reason that I have ever been able to find than because of the long years of tradition and clinical observation behind it.


“Nefretykes must putte awey ire, hyghly and moche besynesse and almanere business and all manner of thynge that longeth to the soule saff save only joye.... They schulle forbere almanere metys that ben to grete of substaunse and viscous, as olde beeff that is myghtyly pooudryd and enharded with salt and also fressch porke but yf it lye in salt iiii dayes afore.... They mowe use grete wyne and the fflessch of calvys that ben87 soowkynge and also of all ffowlys saff thoo that ben of the lakys and dichys dykes? ... and squamous ffyssches, i.e., fyssch of the rivere, of the stony waterys and rennynge ryveres and not of the standyne waterys and they schulle eschywe eschew almaner mete made of paast pastries and all bred that is dowgh bakene and all fatnesse. And they schulle use the reynes of te beeste other roste or sode. And in especiall he schall use a ffowl that is callyd Cauda tremula or Wagstertte the wagtail, an English bird other fressch or salte or bakene withoute drynesse ffor and it be drye it is nought woorth. And note that the use of the powdir or of the flessch of the Wagstertte avayleth gretly to breke the stone in the bladdere.”