The Tangle of Medieval Medical Thought

Now that Elisha Barber is out in the open, available in a bookstore near you, one of the questions I’m frequently asked is whether I have a medical background. The short answer is, alas, no–though I am fortunate to have two editors with medical families, and the services of medical adviser, D. T. Friedman, to check out my surgical scenes.

A view of a reproduction Barber-surgeon's chest shows tools both practical and not.

A view of a reproduction Barber-surgeon’s chest shows tools both practical and not.

So, the follow-up goes, how did you become interested in medieval medicine? I’ve spoken before about the research rabbit-hole–this blog is primarily an ode to the research rabbit-hole, in fact: an opportunity to learn more about strange and interesting history, and to share the bits of research that excite me. In fact, after reading a little about historical medicine, my question is usually how anyone could *not* be fascinated by this stuff.

Science has changed a lot in the last several hundred years. Politics have changed (not as much as we’d like, sometimes). Nations have changed–often changed hands, changed religions, changed sides as well. Our lifestyles have certainly changed since the Middle Ages. But our bodies remain the same. They form a point of sympathy with people throughout known history, and even beyond. When we view a mummy with a wooden replacement toe, we can wince in sympathy at the idea of losing a toe and we can imagine the pain and the awkwardness of the prosthetic. Perhaps we can also imagine the utility of it–how this innovation made walking, wearing sandals–dare I suggest dancing?–that much easier.

The human body, the pain and problems it undergoes, and the desire to alleviate those pains form a parallax of understanding. They are also, from a literary perspective, a rich ground for stories. A story involving bodily trauma can create sympathetic winces in the reader (a power to be used carefully). One in which the stakes are high, vivid, and instantly relatable can draw the reader in and give him or her a strong rooting interest for the character.

And the desire to help, to fix, to cure–that urge toward healing others that underlies the medical profession remains a constant. At times, it moves more toward religion with the idea that cures come from a deity whose intervention must be sought. It moves toward superstition with the idea that illness is caused by outside, malevolent forces which might be manipulated by one’s enemies. And it manifests in a drive to truly understand the body, to pass on knowledge through books and universities, through apprenticeships and deliberate experimentation.

The medieval period covers an interesting, and often disturbing, conjunction of these manifestations of the healing urge. The Catholic Church preached for prayer and the intervention of saints related to the cause of the suffering. At the same time, it often forbade anatomical study as a violation of God’s creation. And yet, universities–many of them Church-sponsored–sprang up across Europe, offering medical instruction that was well-meaning, if often (to our eyes) bizarre. Hospitals were founded, and healthcare offered through charity, and medical treatises spread from hand to hand as practitioners developed new treatments and theories. Witches were accused of bringing illness upon their neighbors–while scholars and physicians blamed the plague upon the interactions of stars and planets, as observed by the science of the day.

This web of tensions strains and snaps and pushes medical practice from then to now. And it makes for powerful stories.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Elisha Barber, historical medicine, history, medieval, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Tangle of Medieval Medical Thought

  1. Pingback: Featured History Blog Posts- August 2013 | History Republic

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