New book explores medieval medicine


First, to perform the treatment, you need a dead vulture.

But it can’t be right any dead vulture. You have to somehow kill it with a reed, while reciting specific prayers at a specific time. Then you need to preserve its various parts, presumably for use by the Dark Age equivalent of an apothecary.

Medical treatment in the 9th century Carolingian Empire did not look much like the care you receive today in a modern doctor’s office. Considered a sacred art, medieval medicine is the subject of the first book by Binghamton University associate professor of history, Meg Leja, Embodying the Soul: Medicine and Religion in Carolingian Europe, published this year with University of Pennsylvania Press. The empire included regions that today include France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and northern Italy.

If you look at most universities’ course offerings in the history of medicine, they usually start in the 16th or 17th centuries, and few books explore medical practices from earlier periods, Leja said. Early medieval medicine has traditionally been considered superstitious, a degraded remnant of the Greco-Roman tradition of medicine.

“In the High Middle Ages, everything was steeped in religion, which put medicine in a different context. Yet it can still be recognized as a rational form of healing in this environment,” Leja said. “It was their understanding of how the world works.”

The remedies addressed a wide range of familiar complaints: headaches, baldness, shedding of unwanted hair and dry eyes, to name a few. Carolingian healers drew on theories from the Greco-Roman world regarding the four bodily humors, different types of fevers, and the differences between male and female bodies. The practices, however, were not identical to those of ancient times and much textual knowledge was lost.

“Because it’s after the end of the Roman world and so much of it was written in Greek, this whole knowledge system became quite fragmented,” Leja explained. “They have snippets of Greek knowledge that they have tried to collect, reconfigure and expand. So dark age medicine looks a bit classical, but it doesn’t look the same as in a treatise by Hippocrates or Galen.

Overall, medical practices remained relatively constant from antiquity until the 1800s; bloodletting was common, as well as herbal remedies, skin dressings, and diets that included fasting, rest, and dietary changes to prevent and treat disease.

“Sometimes these recipes can have many steps and involve exotic ingredients that can be hard to get your hands on,” she said.

If the medical practices of the 9th century may seem foreign to us today, they are underpinned by a form of logic. Words, especially those related to faith, had a special power, as did different times of day or phases of the moon, which were believed to affect bodily fluids in the same way the moon affects the tides.

Often people dismiss these practices as magic and superstition. But they were important in their time; significant resources were devoted to copying these medical texts on parchment at a time when books were prohibitively expensive. For ninth-century practitioners, these techniques were the pinnacle of medical science.

Who these practitioners were remains largely a mystery; history only records the names of a handful of physicians of the time, such as those attached to royal courts. Some monasteries have also devoted resources to healing; the construction plans for one such facility provided for designated rooms for bloodletting, administration of purgatives, and storage of the pharmaceutical equivalent of the day.

For this reason, it seems likely that some monks received medical training, as well as priests. Some books, for example, include both instructions on how to conduct a Christian baptism and ulcer healing techniques. The doctor, or physician, appears as a spiritual figure who can see into the divine realm, predict the future, and heal the soul as well as the body.

Nor should we automatically dismiss the effectiveness of these treatments. Although it’s outside the scope of Leja’s book, a researcher from the University of Nottingham has found an age-old recipe for eye infections written in Old English. When a team of microbiologists followed the recipe to the letter – including instructions that may seem strange to modern eyes – they produced an ointment that proved effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“It suggests that some of these things were really effective and that we should be more humble,” Leja said. “If we dismiss these recipes as ignorant superstition, we might actually be missing something important.”

Currently, Leja is working with an international group of researchers to catalog Latin manuscripts containing medical content from before the year 1100. In addition to medical treatises, remedies and treatments may appear in unusual places, such as religious texts .

“What we see when we take the broader scope is that people probably had access to literate medicine here and there in a wider part of society. Medical knowledge was probably common in different parts of the empire, among people from very different backgrounds,” she said. “They kept a recipe or a little information about a plant wherever they could.”


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