Medieval Medicine

The medieval period or Middle Ages is generally used to refer to the period of European history from 350 AD to 1450 characterized by the growth of cities and towns mainly under the feudal system. The middle ages were preceded by the fall of the Roman Empire as it spilt up into many separate kingdoms and ended with the renaissance period’s many contributions to the arts and humanities. This exponential growth in the population of small areas, coupled with rudimentary sanitation practices led to the spread of disease and an increasing need for medical care among the citizens.

Medieval medicine was largely based on religious principles and superstition and would lead many people to prayers, pilgrimage or other signs of devotion for the prevention and cure of injury or disease. The underlying concept of the human form according to medieval medicine was derived from the Romans’ view of the body as a component of the universe, much like the earth itself, with specific elements to be balanced. The body fluids, or “humors” according to medieval medicine, must be balanced in order to maintain health as an imbalance could cause illness or even death. Medieval medicine practitioners believed that an imbalance in a body’s humor good be caused by anything from a wrathful god to being exposed to a foul odor.

A common treatment in medieval medicine to restore balance of the body fluids was “bloodletting” or bleeding, thought to allow disease or illness to leave the blood. The individual who generally performed such procedures was known as a “barber” and traveled to different towns performing minor surgeries, such as teeth pulling and the practice of bloodletting. The red and white striped pole which is a familiar sight in front of barber shops today originated with this practice of barbers as medieval medicine practitioners.

Perhaps the most common event known about medieval medicine was the Black Plague which swept throughout Europe and Asia from 1347-51 claiming millions of lives. Thought to be a punishment from God for a sinful existence, Black Plague had no cure or effective treatment and claimed the lives of 1 in 3 Europeans.

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