Daily Life in Medieval Europe >> Doctors in Medieval Europe

Doctors in Medieval Europe

a person who has been trained in medical science, whose job is to treat people
who are ill or injured

Doctors, being people who could heal injured or sick people, were very important people. With their great scale of knowledge and the importance of their job, they stood very highly among the medieval society1. However, the number of doctors was very limited, counting only to half a dozen in a city, although there were people acting like doctors who learn little medicine.

When being called by a family of the upper class, the family sent servants to fetch a doctor. When the doctor saw the man seeking for his help, he would have avoided asking questions. However, he would try to prove his worthiness by interrogating the servant with his knowledge2. Once he had come to the patient, he would have taken out several of tests, such as checking the patient’s pulse using a sand clock to measure time. The doctor would also check the patient’s urine by sniffing and also tasting it for sediment and sugar3. He would have also checked on the patient’s diet and would also recommend a healthy meal, as doctors thought as diet being one of the main factors of keeping of healthy diet4. At the end, he would leave behind medicine or drugs to help the cure of the patient.

There were many methods for curing people, as we today have different medicine for different sicknesses. Medicine in Medieval Times were mostly made from herbs, so many doctors had gardens of their own. However, some cures were not so pleasant, as some used urine, animal dung, and even powdered earthworms as medicine to heal people5. However, curing people did not always depend on medicine, but also depended on astrology and religion. People believed that by looking at the stars an infant was born under, they could predict his or her future. The stars held great meaning in a human’s life, and also told people when a good day for proper treatment was6. Also, as most medical science was in the hands of monks, they created the idea of Christian fate affecting health. They believed that a sickness or plague was a punishment from above. Also, God created an image of hope to those who were injured or ill, believing God would lend a hand7.

Barbers were also seen as doctors, as they performed one of the most popular methods of curing people, ‘bloodletting’. There was an idea that blood carried the disease around the body, thus letting the blood flow out of the body would prevent the spread in the body. So, a barber, who usually was someone who retired his old job, would cut a certain place and let the patient bleed8. Sometimes, leaches were even used as they would suck out the blood from the patient. However, these lead to more negative effects in many cases. The main reasons would have been the loss of too much blood or the blade used to cut the patient as it would have not been so clean, having more bacteria entering the body. However, this method was originally used by monks, causing people to have a strong belief in the method of bloodletting as a cure9.

The belief of stars affecting the cure of a patient was very strong among the doctors in Medieval Europe. Astrology was used to predict future events and was also used in medical science. By looking at the night sky, doctors tried to predict the best day for surgery or when to collect a certain herb. The constellations held a strong meaning, as each of the horoscope represented different parts of the human body. Aries was related to the head, Taurus the neck and shoulders, Gemini the arms and hands, Cancer the chest, Leo the heart and the top of the stomach, Virgo the intestinal track, Libra the kidneys, Scorpio the genitals, Sagittarius hips, Capricorn the legs, Aquarius the knees, and Pisces were related to the feet10. Thus, a doctor would have done an operation on the chest under the stars of Cancer, or would have taken herbs to heal the kidney while Libra was above.

As most knowledge being in the hands of monks, religious ideas made many influences on medical science. Before the year 1000 AD, dissecting a human corpse was illegal11. Thus, some doctors, such as those in Rome before the Middle Ages, dissected other animals to make an image of how the human body might have looked like. This, of course, would have made difficulties to fully understand the truth. However, this practice of not seeing the insides of a human corpse continued, even in the Middle. With this, there were ideas of devils living inside of people, causing sickness. Also, sickness was also thought to be a punishment from above from a person’s sins. In other words, the belief in God was one of the main cures to sickness, according to its faith. However, a law was passed out during 1130, making monks illegal to practice medicine12.

Becoming a doctor was never simple, as it was a position that took care of the lives of the people. Education they received started off with three years of Liberal Arts, the main form of education in Medieval Europe. Then, there would have been four years of medical study and a last year under a qualified physician, similar to an apprentice under his master. Then, he could finally become a licensed doctor, chosen by the Pope13.

The money a doctor takes from a patient would depend on his wealth and status in society. Thus, a rich noble man would have to pay more than a poor merchant14. A noble paid around ten livre to a doctor, a king paying ten times more than that.

Diseases in Medieval times were very common, most of them being caused because people did not know why it was happening. Skin disease was caused for wearing wool beside the skin. Defects on diet were also common among the peasants, as they had times they could not get proper food in times such as winter15. Winter’s cold helped many people become sick with typhoid and pneumonia, as housing was not created too well to keep the low temperature away16.

Plagues were a great problem for the whole population. Not only would the disease spread easily, there usually weren’t a proper cure for it. In most cases, ill people were isolated from the rest of the community, preventing the spread of the disease from the victim16. People who were affected by leprosy, for example, were isolated in small communities of other victims of the same disease. One of the most famous plagues of the Middle Ages would have been the Black Death17. Being affected by the black flea, swellings formed on the armpit or the groin, lead to victim to death in six days in most cases. In rare cases, the death from the plague occurred in three days. Not only did many people die, the economy of many towns was affected, in a negative way.

Hospitals existed in Medieval Europe, some of them were very popular among many people. Hotel-Dieu-le-Comte in Troyes was one hospital treating many, even the Pope went there for treatment18. However, not all patients were brought in. Pregnant women were avoided, as there screams during labor were thought to affect the recovery of the other patients. Also, victims of the plagues were sent to local churches and were not treated in hospitals19. This was to help keep the patients as free from other sickness, but can also be thought to protect the hospital’s fame, by not letting anyone die there.

The development of medical science and knowledge of doctors has been very limited in the Middle Ages. Methods of cures were sometimes horrid, leading the patient to a worse situation in some times. However, doctors were still people with great knowledge and did save people. The idea of having qualified doctors with proper knowledge may have originated in Medieval Europe, as religion took its hands off of it.s have risen up to nobles, due to the riches they have been able to earn.


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(c) 2009 by Satoshi Ian Noguchi

Foot Notes

1. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
2. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
3. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
4. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
5. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
6. “Everything2, Medieval Medicine
7. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
8. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
9. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
10. “Everything2, Medieval Medicine
11. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
12. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
13. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
14. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
15. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
16. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
17. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
18. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
19. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies