Healing Blood in the Middle Ages

So yesterday morning I was lounging around, watching my blood come and go, and wondering what to blog about. . . I was visiting my favorite vampires down at the Red Cross Donation Center, where I donate platelets and plasma about once a month (my vampires are very particular).

One of the taglines I use for Elisha Barber is: When bleeding was a way to heal, and magic, a way to die. But of course, bleeding is still a way to heal, hundreds of years later–except that, instead of removing the blood from the patient and discarding it, we remove it from a well person and transfer it to someone in need.

A bloodletting chart from 1493

A bloodletting chart from 1493

The idea of bleeding patients began even before Galen, with the idea that health and personality were ruled by the four humors (Blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), and that an imbalance–usually an excess of one humor over the others–resulted in a wide variety of maladies. Such an imbalance was corrected by bleeding the patient to draw off the surfeit by carrying it away with the blood (if the blood itself were not the problem). Elaborate charts and diagrams showed which body part to bleed from, depending upon the diagnosis, the astrological sign of the patient and the current astrological interpretation, as well as how much blood to draw. This chart is a bit later than my period, but it’s so pleasantly grotesque.

But this was not the only way that blood could heal. My local Red Cross Center is quite close to the Precious Blood Monastery. It’s worth clicking that link just to see the animated fountain of blood at the top. The Sisters use as their symbol of devotion the blood of Christ, as in the Eucharist. Interestingly, during my period, while the Host and the communion wine were both elevated during the Mass, it was only the priest, because of his particular status, who partook of the wine.

Those of us further removed from the Catholic faith are often a bit disturbed by such graphic images and references to the bodily fluids and remains of the revered dead. The Church maintains an uneasy relationship with relics today, and must go to some lengths to remind worshipers that the relic is only the symbol, and not in itself an object of worship. Shortly after the murder of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral, people were already dipping cloths (some torn from the Archbishop’s own clothing) in the pool of blood, preserving for themselves a bit of the holy man’s influence. Water said to contain a diluted bit of this blood was often taken in small lead phials for luck and blessing after a pilgrimage to Canterbury.

One of my favorite blood-related reverences occurs at the church of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. A miraculous bottle of the saint’s blood turns liquid three times a year, including on the anniversary of his martyrdom–back in the reign of Diocletian (maybe around 305 CE). This celebration has drawn pilgrims since 1389. According to local legend, great woe shall befall the city if the blood remains solid. A sort of spiritual prophylactic. Interestingly, there are a number of other saints–all local to that area of Italy–whose blood relics have the same property.

So really, with my personal bloodletting, I was participating in rite with a long, curious history–only the latest in the uses of blood to heal.

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, relics, religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Healing Blood in the Middle Ages

  1. Ambra says:

    Hi! Actually, that image is not exactly a bloodletting chart: it’s a “melothesia” scheme: it shows which zodiac signs influence which parts of the body (this discipline, astrological medicine, is called “iathromathematics”) 🙂
    PS: sorry, I’m a bit pedantic sometimes… 😉

  2. Ambra says:

    I guess it can be considered a bloodletting chart because it could also be used to decide when bleed where though

  3. Ambra says:

    This one is from the right period, if you are interested (From les “tres riches heures” des Duc de Berry, 1413-16). It’s quite beautiful, I think 🙂

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