Medicine in the Middle Ages

16.05.2015 |

Episode #5 of the course “Brief History of Medicine”

During the Middle Ages between antiquity and the historical period known as the Renaissance from 500 – 1400 CE, Europeans did not experience any great advancements in medical knowledge or understanding. In fact, the common teachings of the new Christian religion were that medicines and herbal remedies for illness and injury were witchcraft, and many ancient practices were punishable by death. Disease and suffering were seen as having supernatural causes, and it was assumed that a person was being punished for sins. Many physicians and attendants to the ill during this time were priests and religious leaders, rather than specialists in the workings of the body.

One practice of ancient healing and medical arts remained an exception, however: midwifery. The practices associated with caring for pregnant women, delivery of healthy children, and guiding women through the early trials of lactation and healing after birth had always been considered “women’s knowledge” and remained largely ignored by established physicians. However, most midwives were illiterate, and it wasn’t until the mid-15th century that midwives began to document their practices. Midwives in the Middle Ages understood their trade from hands-on experience rather than texts. Early medieval texts in midwifery indicate that these women understood about prenatal nutrition and exercise, positions and herbs to speed and ease the birth process, and how to perform minor post-delivery surgical repairs.

Most people suffering disease, infection, or serious injury in the Middle Ages would be prayed over by family members or church officials; ill people were sometimes taken on religious pilgrimages to holy relics or locations that were thought to heal them. It was not uncommon to ignore hygiene and food preparation cleanliness in the Middle Ages. The average lifespan of an aristocrat or royal family member was around 50 years old.


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