Medieval Medicine by James J. Walsh, chapter name MEDIEVAL SURGEONS: ITALY


Strange as it may seem, and quite contrary to the usual impressions in the matter, the most interesting department of the history of the medical science during the Middle Ages is that of surgery. Because of this fact we have to divide the subject into two chapters, one for the surgery of Italy, the other for the surgery of the rest of Europe.


We have two series of medieval textbooks which treat largely of surgical subjects in a thoroughly scientific and professional way. The first of these comes to us from the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, when Greek classic influence on medicine and the medical sciences was on the wane; and the other set comes to us from the later Middle Ages, when the earlier Renaissance of Greek influence was just making itself felt in Europe. Both sets of books serve to show very well that the men of these times were not only deeply interested in the affections for which surgery can provide the only89 relief possible, but that they had reached very definite, indeed sometimes ultimate, solutions of a large number of the constantly recurring problems of surgery.


The greatest surprise of the whole range of medical history is that these medieval surgeons of both periods anticipated not a few of the surgical advances that we have been accustomed to think of as having been reserved for our time to make. Our knowledge of these details of the work of the medieval surgeons not only of the sixth and seventh centuries, but also of the thirteenth and fourteenth, is not founded on tradition, nor on a few scattered expressions which a modern medievalist might exaggerate, but on actual textbooks, which fortunately for us were reprinted as a rule during the Renaissance period, and have been preserved for us usually in a number of rather readily available copies. Most of them have been reprinted during the past generation, and have revolutionized our knowledge of the history of surgery; for these textbooks exhibit in detail a deep knowledge of surgical affections, a well-developed differential diagnosis, a thoroughly conservative treatment, and yet a distinct effort to give the patient every possible surgical opportunity for his life, compatible with reasonable assurance of successful surgical intervention. As I have pointed out, the surgical90 history of the old Crusades was as interesting and almost as valuable for civil surgery as that of our own Great War.


Three writers whom we have already mentioned (Early Medieval Medicine)—Aëtius, Alexander of Tralles, and Paul of Ægina—were, as we have seen, all of them interested in surgery, and wrote very interestingly on that subject. It is, however, from the end of the Middle Ages—that is, from the writers of the twelfth century down to the end of the fifteenth—that surprising contributions were made to surgical knowledge. This surgery


of the end of the Middle Ages began its development at Salerno. The first great textbook was that of Roger—known also as Rogero and Ruggiero, with the adjective Parmensis or Salernitanus, of Parma or Salerno—who wrote his work about  . It is of this that Gurlt, in his “History of Surgery,” vol. i., p.  , says: “Though Arabian works on surgery had been brought over to Italy by Constantine Africanus a hundred years before Roger‟s time, these exercised no influence over Italian surgery in the next century, and there is scarcely a trace of the surgical knowledge of the Arabs to be found in Roger‟s works.” He insisted, further, that Arabisms are not found in Roger‟s writings, while many Græcisms occur. The91 Salernitan School of Surgery drank, then, at the fountain-head of Greek surgery.


After Roger comes Rolando, his pupil, who wrote a commentary on his master‟s work, and then the combined work of both of them was subsequently annotated by the Four Masters. It is this textbook, the work of many hands and the combined experience of many great teachers, that is the foundation stone of modern surgery. Some of the expressions in this volume will serve to give the best idea of how thoroughly these surgeons of the later medieval period studied their cases, how careful they were in observation, and how well they solved many problems that we are inclined to think of as having come up for serious consideration only much later than this time. After studying their chapter on Injuries of the Head, it is easy to understand why Gurlt should declare that, though there is some doubt about the names of the authors, this volume makes it very clear that these writers drew their opinions from a rich experience.


They warn about the possibility of fracture of the skull even when there is no penetrating wound of the scalp, and they even suggest the advisability of exploratory incision when there is some good reason for suspicion of, though no evident sign of, fracture. In “Old-Time Makers of Medicine,” I quoted some of the details of this teaching as to head92 surgery that may serve to illustrate what these surgeons taught on this important subject.


There are many warnings of the danger of opening the skull, and of the necessity for definitely deciding beforehand that there is good reason for so doing. How carefully their observation had been made, and how well they had taken advantage of their opportunities, which were, of course, very frequent in those warlike times when firearms were unknown, hand-to-hand conflict common, and blunt weapons were often used, can be appreciated very well from some of the directions. For instance, they knew of the possibility of fracture by contrecoup. They say that “quite frequently, though the percussion comes in the anterior part of the cranium, the cranium is fractured on the opposite part.” They even seem to have known of accidents such as we now discuss in connection with the laceration of the middle meningeal artery. They warn surgeons of the possibilities of these cases. They tell the story of “a youth who had a very small


wound made by a thrown stone, and there seemed no serious results or bad signs. He died the next day, however. His cranium was opened, and a large amount of black blood was found coagulated about his dura mater.”


There are many interesting things said with93 regard to depressed fractures and the necessity for elevating the bone. If the depressed portion is wedged, then an opening should be made with the trephine, and an elevating instrument called a spatumen used to relieve the pressure. Great care should be taken, however, in carrying out this procedure, lest the bone of the cranium itself, in being lifted, should injure the soft structures within. The dura mater should be carefully protected from injury as well as the pia. Care should especially be exercised at the brow, and the rear of the head, and at the commissures (proram et pupim et commissuras), since at these points the dura mater is likely to be adherent. Perhaps the most striking expression, the word “infect” being italicized by Gurlt, is: “In elevating the cranium, be solicitous lest you should infect or injure the dura mater.”


While these old-time surgeons insisted on the necessity for treating all depressed fractures, and even suggested that many fissure fractures required trephining, they deprecated meddlesome surgery of the cranium, unless there was evident necessity, quite as much as we do now. Surgeons who in every serious wound of the head have recourse to the trephine must, they said, be looked upon as fools and idiots (idioti et stolidi). When operations were done on the head, cold particularly was to be avoided. The operations were not to be done in94 cold weather, and above all not in cold places. The air of the operating-room must be warmed artificially. Hot plates should surround the patient‟s head while the operation was being performed. If this were not possible they were to be done by candlelight, the candle being held as close as possible in a warm room. They had many experiences with fractures at the base of the skull. Hæmorrhages from the mouth and nose and from the ears were considered a bad sign. They even suggested, for diagnostic purposes, what seems to us the rather dangerous procedure that the patient should hold his mouth and nostrils tight shut and blow strongly. One of their methods of negative diagnosis for fractures of the skull was that, if the patient were able to bring his teeth together strongly, or to crack a nut without pain, then there was no fracture present. One of the commentators, however, adds to this, as well he might, sed hoc aliquando fallit—“but this sign sometimes fails.” Split or crack fractures were also diagnosticated by the methods suggested by Hippocrates of pouring some coloured fluid over the skull after the bone was exposed, when a linear fracture would show by coloration. The Four Masters suggest a sort of red ink for this purpose.


One might well expect that, with trephining as frequent as this textbook of the Four Masters more95 than hints, the death-rate of these medieval surgeons must have been very high in head cases. We can scarcely understand such intervention in the conditions


of operation assumed to exist in the Middle Ages without almost inevitable infection and consequent death. They seem to have come to an empiric recognition of the advantage of absolute cleanliness in such operations. Indeed, in the light of our modern asepsis and its development during our own generation, it is rather startling to note the anticipation of what is most recent in the directions that are given to a surgeon to be observed on the day when he is to do a trephining. I give it in the original Latin as it may be found in Gurlt (vol. i., p.  ): “Et nota quod die illa cavendum est medico a coitu et malis cibis æra corrumpentibus, ut sunt allia, cepe, et hujusmodi, et colloquio mulieris menstruosæ, et manus ejus debent esse mundæ, etc.” The directions are most interesting. The surgeon‟s hands must be clean; he must avoid coitus and the taking of food that may corrupt the air, such as onions, leeks, and the like; must avoid menstruating women; and in general must keep himself in a state of absolute cleanliness.


After the South Italian surgeons, some of whom taught at Bologna, a group of North Italian surgeons, most of whom probably were either direct96 or indirect pupils of the Salernitan School, must be considered. This includes such distinguished names in the history of surgery as Bruno da Longoburgo, usually called simply Bruno; Theodoric and his father Hugh of Lucca; William of Salicet; Lanfranc, the disciple of William who taught at Paris, and gave that primacy to French surgery which was maintained all the centuries down to the nineteenth (p. ); and Mondino, the author of the first manual on dissection, which continued for two centuries to be used by practically everyone who anywhere did dissection throughout Europe. Practically all of these men did their best work between  and . Bruno of Longoburgo taught at Padua and Vicenza, and his textbook, the “Chirurgia Magna,” was completed in Padua in January,  . Gurlt notes that “He is the first of the Italian surgeons who besides the Greeks quotes also the Arabian writers on surgery.” Eclecticism had definitely come into vogue to replace exclusive devotion to the Greek authors, and men were taking what was good wherever they found it.


Bruno begins his work by a definition of surgery, chirurgia, tracing it to the Greek and emphasizing that it means handwork. He then declares that it is the last instrument of medicine to be used, only when the other two instruments, diet and potions, have failed. He insists that surgeons must learn by seeing surgical operations, and watching them long and diligently. They must be neither rash nor over-bold, and should be extremely cautious about operating. While he says that he does not object to a surgeon taking a glass of wine, the followers of this specialty must not drink to such an extent as to disturb their command over themselves, and they must not be habitual drinkers. While all that is necessary for their art cannot be learned out of books, they must not despise books, however, for many things can be learned readily from books, even about the most difficult parts of surgery. Three things the surgeon has to do—“to bring


together separated parts, to separate those that have become abnormally united, and to extirpate what is superfluous.”


While the old textbooks had emphasized the necessity for not allowing the circulation in the head to be disturbed by the cold, and insisted on the taking of special precautions in this matter, Bruno insists that wounds must be more carefully looked to in summer than in winter, because “putrefaction is greater in warm than in cold weather”—putrefactio est major in æstate quam in hyeme. He is particularly insistent on the necessity of drainage. In wounds of the extremities the limb must always be so placed as to encourage drainage. To secure it the wound may be enlarged; if necessary, even a counter-opening must be made to provide drainage. In order to secure proper union care must be exercised to bring the wound edges accurately together, and not allow hair or oil or dressings to come between them. In large wounds he considers stitching indispensable, and the preferable suture material in his experience is silk or linen. He discusses healing by first and second intention, and declares that with proper care the healing of a great many wounds by first intention can be secured. All his treatment of wounds is dry. Water he considered always did harm, and it is quite easy to understand that his experience taught him this, for the water generally available for surgeons in camps and battlefields and in emergency surgery was likely to do much more harm than good.


Some of the details of his technique of abdominal wounds will be particularly interesting to modern surgeons.


If there was difficulty in bringing about the reposition of the intestines, they were first to be pressed back with a sponge soaked in warm wine. Other manipulations are suggested, and if necessary the wound must be enlarged. If the omentum finds its way out of the wound, all of it that is black or green must be cut off. In cases where the99 intestines are wounded they are to be sewed with a small needle and a silk thread, and care is to be exercised in bringing about complete closure of the wound. This much will give a good idea of Bruno‟s thoroughness. Altogether, Gurlt, in his “History of Surgery,” gives about fifteen large octavo pages of rather small type to a brief compendium of Bruno‟s teachings.


One or two other remarks of Bruno are rather interesting in the light of modern development in medicine. For instance, he suggests the possibility of being able to feel a stone in the bladder by means of bimanual palpation. He teaches that mothers may often be able to cure hernias, both umbilical and inguinal, in children by promptly taking up the treatment of them as soon as noticed, bringing the edges of the hernial opening together by bandages, and then preventing the reopening of the hernia, by prohibiting wrestling and loud crying and violent motion. He has seen overgrowth of the


mamma in men, and declares that it is due to nothing else but fat, as a rule. He suggests if it should hang down and be in the way on account of its size, it should be extirpated. He seems to have known considerable about the lipomas, and advises that they need only be removed in case they become bothersomely large. The removal is easy, and any bleeding that takes place100 may be stopped by means of the cautery. He divides rectal fistulæ into penetrating and non-penetrating, and suggests salves for the non- penetrating and the actual cautery for those that penetrate. He warns against the possibility of producing incontinence by the incision of deep fistulæ, for this would leave the patient in a worse state than before.


The most interesting feature of the work of the North Italian surgeons of the later Middle Ages is their discovery and development of the two special advances of our modern surgery in which we are inclined to take most pride. These are, union by first intention, and anæsthesia. It is of course very startling to think that surgeons of seven centuries ago should have made advances in these important phases of surgery—which were afterwards to be forgotten; but human history is not a story of constant progress, but of ups and downs, and the mystery of human history is the decadence that almost inevitably follows any period of supremely great accomplishment by mankind. The later Middle Age enjoyed a particularly great period of efflorescence and achievement in surgery, and this, quite as with literature and other phases of human accomplishment, was followed by distinct descent of interest in surgical theory, and decadence in surgical practice, until the Renaissance came to101 provide another climax of surgical development. It would be perilous to say, however, that the acme of the curve of Renaissance surgical progress was higher than its predecessor, though once more there is the surprise to find that this high point was followed by another descent, until the curve ascended again in our time.


What we have said already with regard to the requirement of cleanliness in operating upon the skull, insisted upon by the Salernitan School, will suggest that some of the practical value of asepsis had come home to these old-time surgeons. The North Italian surgeons went, however, much farther in their anticipations of asepsis. They insisted that if a surgeon made a wound through an unbroken surface and did not secure union by first intention, it was usually his own fault.


It is to them we owe the expression “union by first intention”—unio per primam intentionem—which means nothing to us except through its Latin equivalent. They boasted of getting linear cicatrices which could scarcely be seen, and evidently their practice fostered the best of surgical technique and was founded on excellent principles. The North Italian surgeons replaced the use of ointments by wine, and evidently realized its cleansing—that is, antiseptic—quality. What is often not realized is, that the very old traditional treatment102 of wounds by the pouring of wine and oil into them


represented a mild antiseptic and a soothing protective dressing. The wine inhibited the growth of ordinary germs, the oil protected the wound from dust and dirt. They were not ideal materials for the purpose, but they were much better when discreetly used than many surgical dressings of much more modern times founded on elaborate theories.


Professor Clifford Allbutt, reviewing the practice of these North Italian surgeons of the thirteenth century, says:


“They washed the wound with wine, scrupulously removing every foreign particle; then they brought the edges together, not allowing wine nor anything else to remain within— dry adhesive surfaces were their desire. Nature, they said, produces the means of union in a viscous exudation—or natural balm, as it was afterwards called by Paracelsus, Paré, and Wurtz. In older wounds they did their best to obtain union by cleansing, desiccation, and refreshing of the edges. Upon the outer surface they laid only lint steeped in wine. Powder they regarded as too desiccating, for powder shuts in decomposing matters; wine, after washing, purifying, and drying the raw surfaces, evaporates.”


Theodoric wrote in  on that question that so much disturbed the surgeons of the generations103 before ours, as to whether pus was a natural development in the healing of wounds or not. While laudable pus was for centuries after his time supposedly a scientific doctrine, Theodoric did not think so, and emphatically insisted that such teaching represented a great error. He said: “For it is not necessary, as Roger and Roland have written, as many of their disciples teach, and as all modern surgeons profess, that pus should be generated in wounds. No error can be greater than this. Such a practice is indeed to hinder nature, to prolong the disease, and to prevent the conglutination and consolidation of the wound.” The italics in the word modern are mine, but the whole expression might well have been used by some early advocate of antisepsis, or even by Lord Lister himself. Just six centuries almost to the year would separate the two declarations, yet they would be just as true at one time as at another. When we learn that Theodoric was proud of the beautiful cicatrices which his father had obtained without the use of any ointment—pulcherrimas cicatrices sine unguento inducebat—then, further, that he impugned the use of poultices and of oils in wounds, while powders were too drying, and besides had a tendency to prevent drainage (the literal meaning of the Latin words he employs, saniem incarcerare, is to “incarcerate sanious material”), it is easy to104 understand that the claim that antiseptic surgery was anticipated six centuries ago is no exaggeration and no far-fetched explanation, with modern ideas in mind, of certain clever modes of dressing hit upon accidentally by medieval surgeons.


After Bruno, who brought with him the methods and principles of surgery from the South of Italy, his contemporary of the North, Hugh of Lucca—Ugo da Lucca, or Luccanus, as he is also called—deserves to be mentioned. He was called to Bologna in as City Physician, and was with the regiment of crusaders from Bologna at Damietta in

. He returned to Bologna in  and occupied the post of legal physician. The Civic Statutes of Bologna are, according to Gurlt, the oldest monument of legal medicine in the Middle Ages. Hugh seems to have been deeply intent on chemical experiments, and especially anodyne and anæsthetic drugs. He is said to have been the first to have taught the sublimation of arsenic. Like many another distinguished practitioner of medicine and surgery, he left no writings. All that we know of him and his work, and above all his technique, we owe to the filial devotion of his son Theodoric.


Anæsthesia is perhaps an even greater surprise in the Middle Ages than practical antisepsis. A great many of these surgeons of the time seem to105 have experimented with substances that might produce anæsthesia. Mandragora was the base of most of these anæsthetics, though a combination with opium seems to have been a favourite. They succeeded apparently, even with such crude means, in producing insensibility to pain without very serious dangers. One of these methods of Da Lucca was by inhalation, and seems to have been in use for a full century. Guy de Chauliac describes the method as it was used in his day, and a paragraph with regard to it will be found in the chapter on Surgeons of the West of Europe. It is quite clear that the extensive operations which are described in their textbooks of surgery at this time could not possibly have been performed, only that the surgeons were able to secure rather a deep and prolonged insensibility to pain. With anæsthesia combined with antisepsis, it is easy to understand how well equipped the surgeons of this time were for the development of their speciality.


The fourth of these great surgeons at the North of Italy was William of Salicet. He was a pupil of Bruno of Longoburgo. Some idea of his practice as a surgeon may be obtained from even the first chapter of his first book. He begins with the treatment of hydrocephalus—or, as he calls it, “water collected in the heads of children newly born.” He rejects opening of the head by incision106 because of the danger of it. He had successfully treated some of these difficult cases, however, by puncturing the scalp and membrane by a cautery, a very small opening being made and fluid being allowed to escape only drop by drop. William did not quote his predecessors much, but depended to a great extent on his own experience. He has many interesting details of technique with regard to the special subject of surgery of the nose, the ear, the mouth; and he did not even hesitate to treat goitre when it grows large, and says that if the sac is allowed to remain it should be thoroughly rubbed over on the inside with “green ointment.” He warned “that in this affection many large bloodvessels make their appearance, and they find their way everywhere through the fleshy mass.”


A very interesting development of surgery along a line where it would probably be least expected was in plastic surgery. In the first half of the fifteenth century the two Brancas, father and son, performed a series of successful operations for the restoration of the nose particularly, and the son invented a series of similar procedures for the restoration of mutilated lips and ears. The father seems to have built up the nose from other portions of the face, possibly using, as Gurlt suggests, the skin of the forehead, as the Indian surgeons had done, though without any known hint of their107 work. Fazio, the historian of King Alphonso I. of Naples, who died in , describes the favourite operation of Antonio Branca, the son, who in order not to disfigure any further the face in these cases, made the new nose from the skin of the upper arm; and in anticipation of Tagliacozzi, who attracted much attention by a similar operation in the latter half of the sixteenth century, separated the new nose from the arm sometime during the third week. There is abundance of other evidence as to the Brancas‟ work from contemporary writers—for instance, Bishop Peter Ranzano the annalist, the poet Calenzio, and Alexander Benedetti, the physician and anatomist—so that there can be no doubt of the fact that this wonderful invention in surgical technique was actually made before the close of the Middle Ages.


It is interesting to realize that, while we hear much about the work of the Brancas, and from ecclesiastical authorities, there is no word of condemnation of the practice of restoring the nose or other facial features until much later in history. Tagliacozzi, who revived the operation of rhinoplasty just about the beginning of the seventeenth century, did not share so kind a fate. The latter Italian surgeon was roundly abused by some of his colleagues, even, it is said, by Fallopius and Paré, and bitterly satirized in Butler‟s “Hudibras.” As late as  (!) the Paris faculty interdicted face-repairing altogether. It is this sort of intolerance, on some superstitious ground or other, that is usually attributed to the Middle Ages. For such events the adjective medieval seems particularly adapted. As a matter of fact, we find comparatively little trace of such intolerance in medieval times; but it is comparatively easy to find the bitterest treatment of fellow-mortals for all sorts of foolish reasons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.