Much from the medieval time period is surprising. Innovations in architecture, warfare, commerce and the arts began during this time period and have had profound influences through history. Yet while advances were made in some areas, this was not true across the board. Perhaps the one area that could have most benefited society, but saw little improvement, was that of medieval medicine.
While the Greeks and Romans had done a great deal of work in the field of medicine, little of their knowledge made it through to the medieval times. A generally poor understanding of the body, a population explosion and unsanitary conditions in many medieval cities, made sickness and illnesses quite common. This led to one of the worst illnesses/epidemics in history, the Black Death, which claimed the lives of nearly ½ of the population of Europe.
Part of the problem was that the spread of infectious disease was not understood. It was widely believed that bad odors caused sickness. Antibiotics were also unheard of. Generally, there were two beliefs in regard to health. According to the Church, if one was to get sick, it was believed the illness was a physical manifestation of some sin or weakness of the soul. To combat this, people meditated or prayed in hope of regaining their health. Needless to say, this was not often effective.
The other view was that the bodies’ operation was governed by four systems of “humors” that related to the four basic elements, earth, water, air and fire. According to this belief, the “humors” had to be in balance. If a person got sick, to make them better, balance had to be restored. To restore this balance, bloodletting where blood was drained in an effort to bring back the lost balance, was a common, albeit largely unsuccessful practice. Not surprisingly, medical treatment from trained healers was primarily available to the wealthy, many times consisting of herbal remedies. Since the bodies’ operation was not really understood, these herbal remedies could sometimes be worse than the illness as they sometimes included poisons, urine or excrement. Barbers were also the first surgeons, though the concept of anesthesia was virtually unknown.
The “trained” physicians would examine a patient’s blood, urine or stool to diagnosis a patient’s illness. In addition to balancing the “humors,” complex surgeries such as brain surgery or the cataract removals were sometimes performed. Though these surgeries often failed, they were sometimes, surprisingly so, successful.
Other medical practitioners were folk healers, monks and even saints. Women often practiced as healers, though later their role was prohibited. Hospitals first appeared during medieval times, led largely by the monastic order know as the Knights Hospitaller. Their fighting experience made them very skilled in the treatment of trauma type injuries.
While medical care could be found during medieval times, quality medical care was rare to nonexistent. Despite the work of some, such as Da Vinci in the later medieval period, advancements in medical science were not made and accepted until many years later.