of Ancient Medicine
is only one Physician, Jesus Christ.
Ignatius (quoted by S. Argus, p305)
triumph of ecclesiastic terrorism (see Death
on the Nile) signalled the end of Alexandria
as an intellectual centre. From the early 5th century onward this
greatest metropolis of the Hellenic world dwindled into a Christianised
Christian dominion in Egypt came the burial of the
dead and the loss of a practical knowledge which, for millennia, had been
gained from the mummification of corpses. The victory of religious
fanatics signalled the impending closure of the
secular study and with it, an end to the formal training of doctors. Any
residual knowledge of ancient medical wisdom,
passed on by practitioners, was condemned as 'sorcery' and this
censure extended to attacks
upon herbal remedies.
the victory of Christ, cleanliness and hygiene were
themselves suspect. The
Church condemned public bathing (as immoral and sinful) as energetically
as it did the theatre, and encouraged the closure of the baths
which had done so much to preserve public health in the great
cities of the Roman world.
clean body and clean clothes betoken an unclean mind.'
(C. Freeman, p238)
spoke the 'ascetic Paula', a Roman aristocrat and Christian zealot,
to the nuns she had gathered around her. St
Jerome, Church luminary and author of the Vulgate Bible,
echoed her sentiments:
who has bathed in Christ does not need a second bath.'
Father Tertullian found even shaving offensive to God.
a lie against our own faces, and an impious attempt to
improve the works of the creator.'
(Gibbon, ch. 15)
the Roman habit of daily bathing, such a quintessential feature
of their culture, took centuries to die. During the 6th century
reign of another Christian hero – Justinian – Constantinople's
public baths still functioned. But the numerous baths dated from
an earlier age and they had never matched the spectacular structures
of pagan Rome.
the largesse of Justinian's early years the Bath of Zeuxippus was
embellished and another built in the district of Hebdomon. But
throughout his reign the Christian monarch's preoccupation (and
the empire's wealth) was taken up with the construction of a
plethora of costly churches, monasteries and convents.
There were no 'Baths of Justinian' – Godliness came
Wars and civil
turmoil interrupted urban water supply (and not only to the baths)
throughout the Roman world. Starved of funds and with no new
engineers being trained sophisticated maintenance of the baths
became impossible. During the 7th and 8th centuries, all the
grand baths went out of use completely, their fabric pillaged
for Christian churches.
which viewed the human body not as a thing of beauty but rather
as a temptation, had no regrets about the loss.
treatment for leprosy:
two birds. Kill one. Dip the live bird in the
blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on
the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked
bird fly off. Next find a lamb and kill it. Wipe
some of its blood on the patient's right ear,
thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle seven times with
oil and wipe some of the oil on his right ear,
thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally kill a couple
doves and offer one for a sin offering and the
other for a burnt offering.
diseases – the
notorious 'boils' and 'leprosy' of the Middle Ages – became
the norm rather than the exception. Until modern times, almost
any disfiguring skin complaint was classed as 'leprosy.' Untreated,
permanent damage would spread from skin to nerves, limbs and
were total outcasts. Once a charge of leprosy was made the hapless
soul was banned from towns, markets, even churches. Forced to
live outside the main settlements, the leper had to carry a clapper
or a bell to warn passers-by of his coming.
occasionally established a lazar house, not to effect
any treatment to the sick but to confine the victims away from
other folk. Condemned to this living hell (lepers were known
as the ‘dead among the living’) these desperate
souls still had their uses. For a certain breed of pious Christian
'caring' became an end in itself, the means by which the
carer earned his own salvation in the world yet to come.
But at least
the sufferers were close to God.
century Catastrophe – Plague
plague first reached the Roman world in the spring
of 541 AD. The trigger appears to have been a climatic shift
resulting from a massive volcanic explosion on the island of
Krakatoa, with atmospheric dust chilling both hemispheres.
rats arrived first in Roman Egypt at the port of Pelusium and
from there spread to Antioch, Constantinople and other cities.
The result was devastating:
"Up to a
third of Europe's population died in the first massive outbreak
and in the capital, more than 50 per
cent of the inhabitants are thought to have perished."
of Ephesus recorded that, at it height, in the city of
Constantinople, the plague was carrying off as many as 16,000
souls each day. Worse yet: the plague was to return repeatedly
over the next two centuries.
the most virulent outbreaks of the plague coincided with the
long reign of Justinian. Two centuries earlier the empire might
have recovered reasonably quickly from this natural disaster
but the vainglorious monarch, preoccupied with re-conquering
the west, had plunged the Roman world into almost continuous
western provinces were ruined by the conflict. 30 years of warfare
against the Goths in Italy, for example, (in which Rome changed
hands four times) destroyed urban civilization in the
peninsular and brought whole regions to famine. The provinces
of north Africa and southern Spain were similarly ravaged by
Justinian's armies. Records Procopius in The Secret
make any accurate estimate of the number of lives destroyed
by this man would never, it seems to me, be within the power
of any living being other than God. ... Libya, for instance,
in spite of its enormous size, has been laid so utterly waste
that however far one went it would be a difficult and remarkable
achievement to find a single person there ... In Libya alone
five million people lost their lives ..." (18.15)
Justinian achieved no lasting triumph. The wrecked provinces
were not rebuilt but rather, were further ruined by the rapacious
greed of tax farmers. Their intent was to collect ever-greater
amounts of tax to pay for grandiose ecclesiastical buildings
and a huge parasitic class of monks. People fled the towns more
often to avoid the taxman than the 'barbarian'.
during Justinian's lifetime, new tribes crossed the weakened
frontiers: Lombards, Moors, Slavs, Bulgars, Avars. Harvests went
ungathered, livestock roamed free, vast areas of agricultural
land went out of cultivation. The hungry, dirty, war-weary and
displaced peoples of the Roman world were rendered extremely
vulnerable to the virulence of the plague.
into Pious Madness
worse was to come. After the death of his wife Theodora in 548,
Justinian entered a period (which lasted seventeen years, until
his death) of morbid piety.
'During the last
years of Justinian, his infirm mind was devoted to heavenly
contemplation, and he neglected the business of the lower
(Gibbon, Chapter 45)
God's 'Regent on Earth', though previously of a contrary
opinion, was now reliably informed by the Big Guy that "Christ
had only one nature and it was divine" (in Church-speak monophysitism)
and launched a new civil war against his obdurate subjects.
Justinian contemplated the nature of the godhead, his churchmen
had their own response to the pandemic: Church hierarchs claimed
that the plague was God's punishment for not obeying church
this additional whip in the hands of the Church, and corpses
piling up in the street, thousands flocked into the churches
in a desperation to be "saved" and avoid the lash of
God's Loving Church.
the climate of terror, one group in particular, was singled out
for special treatment: the Jews. Justinian outlawed the Talmud,
which he described as 'puerile fabrications, insulting and
blasphemous' and he curtailed the religious and civil freedoms
which they had always enjoyed.
pagans were even more harshly dealt with. A fanatical monk and
inquisitor, Ioannis Asiacus, was dispatched to forcibly convert
any remaining pagans in Asia Minor. Plato's
old academy at Athens was closed and non-Christian philosophers
fled into exile. Homosexuality was outlawed.
like Stalin in 1953) died just as he was about to launch
a new purge, this time eliminating opponents of his latest
theological marvel – 'aphthartodocetism' (apparently, 'JC
had always had an “incorruptible” body, not able
to feel hunger, thirst or pain.')
there was no denying the demographic disaster that
had befallen the Roman world. Constantinople, in the years before
the plague a city of half a million souls, a century later had
a population of barely 100,000. By the end of the 6th century
the population of Europe had halved and many towns had simply
ceased to exist.
Christian Empire's response was pious madness ...
beliefs about the human body.
have always had a special affinity with suffering.
Their godman suffered for the sins of the world and in every
age, hair-shirt Christians have embraced suffering as a way of
getting closer to their hero. Contrariwise, pleasure has always
been somewhat suspect, particularly 'desires
of the body,' regarded as demonic in origin. Greek Stoicism,
of course, had urged continence and emotional restraint but Christians
took the idea to new extremes.
their psychotic mind-set, many Christians regarded the body as
nothing less than the 'enemy' of the soul.
The demons who inspired desire were to be fought in what was
perceived as a cosmic battle for the soul. Though its own hierarchs
rarely observed the practice, subjugation of desire, renunciation
of pleasure, chastity, self-inflicted agonies, isolation and
every other form of deprivation was lauded by the Church as an
achievement of holiness and "spirituality."
suffering of martyrs – real and invented – became
an edifying obsession. The wild ascetics of the desert, the anchorites
in caves, the stylites on pillars became creatures of wonder
What did it matter if the cities of man crumbled into the dust, the 'City
of God' was eternal. What did it matter if, in this short life,
you were sickly and crippled, you would be perfect in God's kingdom
for all eternity. Since God creates all things, even sickness
and injury is by His Will. Who are we to question the Divine
plan? To cure sickness, to repair injury, with the 'wisdom of
man' was to oppose the Will of God.
the ecclesiastic asylum of the post-classical age, the
ancient medicine and hygiene of the Greeks and Romans were declared
'heretical', having been overwhelmed by the plague in any event.
In the aftermath of the plague the Church moved to dominate all
fields of medicine. Holy
Mother Church delimited the acceptable response to illness:
sick were to repent for their sin (which had allowed malevolent
spirits to enter their body);
sick were to be sent on pilgrimage to a holy shrine (where
they could purchase relics);
sick were to write holy names on scrolls and wear them on the
were to be offered up to the Saints.
seems martyrs' bones were capable of curing everything (but,
of course, not everyone). Monasteries in both east and
west had so-called 'hospitals' and 'sick houses', though essentially
they were hospices, where ignorant monks aided
the sick to die with a "saved" soul. A legacy
bequeathed to the Church was the most assured method
of ensuring passage to the Christian Heaven.
Much of the
Roman world had been uneasy about dissection (such was the fear
of the dead). The Church was in no doubt: dissection of the human
cadaver was a desecration of the Temple of the Holy
Ghost. Medical research ceased for a thousand years.
It should be
noted in passing that the Church's interdict on the dissection
of the human body was of no import when it came to the chopping
element of Papal Catholicism's foreign policy – and "fund raising"
– was the export
of martyrs' bones and relics to its religious colonies.
The various parts of a 'martyr' might be distributed across the
length and breadth of christendom. Indeed, the Church quite consciously
used the disturbing 'power' of skeletons to instill fear and
awe in whole nations lost in ignorance and superstition.
medicine, during the course of centuries, showed neither originality
nor innovation. The long and often complex medical writings of
antiquity, though occasionally copied and abridged, did little
to mitigate the epidemics which regularly decimated the increasingly unsanitary
cities. Leprosy, smallpox and tuberculosis all took their toll.
the west, the picture was even bleaker. Though a physician is
occasionally reported at the court of a barbarian king, 'medicine'
had become entirely the province of an ignorant, chanting clergy,
and, among the peasantry, of 'wise women' – custodians
of folk wisdom and herbalism, forever in danger of denouncement
by the Church for 'sorcery'. Their efforts, in time, were to
make them the victims of witch-hunts and barbarous cruelty.
best that could be said is that successive culling of the human
population ensured that a natural resistance was passed on by
the fortunate survivors.
is an alarming account of the dead Thomas à Becket
the Archbishop of Canterbury wore a large brown
mantle over a white surplice, over a lambs wool
fur coat, over a woollen pelisse, over a Benedictine
habit, over a shirt, over a tight-fitting hair-cloth
those were infested with fleas, bugs and lice,
so many that the garments seemed to be moving."
(The Illustrated History of Medicine p38)
medicine' – that is the medicine of the Roman world – trickled
back into the west over several centuries. After a darkness of
500 years, contact with the Muslim world, which
had preserved and translated into Arabic many ancient manuscripts,
led to re-translation into Latin of the works of Galen in particular.
the African', a multilingual convert to Christianity from Carthage,
became a monk at Monte Casino, where he made available Latin
versions of Galen's Ars parva, Hippocrates' Aphorisms,
and 'Haly Abbas's' Pantegni.
these works Western Europe now had available to it details
of the theoretical medical system – Galenism – developed
– I. Loudon (p56)
Monte Casino the knowledge went south to Salerno where, about
the year 1100 the first medieval medical school began. Others
followed at Chartres, Paris and Montpelier. The fall of Constantinople
in 1453 dispersed to the West many Greek scholars and with them,
many precious manuscripts from a pre-Christian world.
Muslim scholar Ibn Sina (given
the Latin name "Avicenna" to make him
more palatable to the Church) wrote an encyclopedic
compilation of ancient medical wisdom in the
11th century. His Canon of Medicine formed
the curriculum of European medical schools until
the 17th century.
During these centuries Christian
Europe showed its gratitude by waging a series
of vicious Crusades against the infidel.
whereas the 2nd century Galen had been an empiricist,
ready to revise both his theories and practice, the poorly-educated
quacks of the Middle Ages, who re-discovered Galen 800 years
after his death, were awe-struck by his prodigious output.
the suspicious eye of Holy Mother Church they could do no better
than 'systematize' Galen's speculations on 'humours' into a pseudo-science,
which combined liberal doses of alchemy and astrology with a
limited scientific understanding. Four 'qualities' (hot, cold,
dry, wet), permutated with four 'elements' (fire, air, earth,
water), produced four 'humours' (blood, phlegm, yellow bile,
black bile) which, when, in imbalance, caused illness – or
so it was thought. In this crippled form, 'Galenism' formed the
medicine of Europe for the next 600 years.
to mediaeval Galenism, Christian monks and nuns learned 'bleeding' techniques,
designed to prevent 'toxic imbalances' and restore 'humours'.
As a result, tens of thousands died each year by bleeding until
the practice ended in the 16th century.
equally ludicrous alternative to bleeding was blistering – 'drawing
off sick or excessive humour with a hot iron' and with it,
concoctions of lead, arsenic and cow dung, all used to treat
disease! Throughout the lethal 'treatments', of course, religious
penance and prayer played a central
role. We were all doomed to die anyway.
4th Lateran Council of 1215, the first to prohibit bishops, abbots
and priests from performing surgery, required physicians (themselves
members of minor orders) to get their patients to confess sins
to a priest before administering treatment, because:
sit multo preciosior carpore'
soul is far more precious than the body)
same rationale, in fact, used to justify centuries of killing
wherever ran the writ of Christ's Loving Church.
Postscript: Christian Prudery's Gift to the World? – Syphilis
mysterious epidemic, hitherto unknown, which had
struck terror into all hearts by the rapidity of
its spread, the ravages it made, and the apparent
helplessness of the physicians to cure it."
quote about AIDS? No. It's about the appearance of
syphilis in the early 16th century. Despite the popular
myth we now know syphilis was NOT brought back by Columbus
and his libidinous crew after 1492. Syphilis had
been endemic in Europe for millennia.
evidence comes from pre-Columbian skeletons – such
as those unearthed at an Augustinian friary in Hull (see BBC
History) – and from a 14th
century churchyard in Essex (see Secrets
of the Dead) – which show the distinctive
malformations of syphilis. In Hull, 60% of the excavated
skeletons showed signs of syphilis. Other pre-Columbian
skeletons with signs of syphilis have been found as
far afield as Pompeii and Israel.
existed in Europe prior to the 1490s but was unrecognized
and in a form which was less virulent,
and was confused with other diseases such as leprosy.
The name 'syphilis' was first applied by Girolamo Fracastoro
in 1530 from the name of a shepherd in a poem by Leonardo
da Vinci. The syphilis bacterium – the Treponema microorganism – had
been causing related diseases, like yaws or bejel,
for thousands of years – on both sides of
in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, unique conditions
favoured a mutation of the microorganism into a sexually
of Syphilis towards sexual transmission
are more pathogenic when they arrive in virgin populations – as
was the case when other European diseases were introduced
into the New World: small pox, typhoid, scarlet fever,
influenza, dysentery, diphtheria, chicken pox and cholera.
Pre-contact American Indian healers – with a
system of medical treatment comparable to European
physicians of the time (botanical antiseptics,
syringes made from bird bones) – were completely
overwhelmed by the assault. Many populations of native
Americans were themselves decimated by syphilis in
the 16th century – after the arrival
of Europeans. An estimated 65 percent
or more of American Indians died within a century.
the 15th century, a non-venereal treponomal
organism existed in the Americas as a relatively harmless
childhood disease, endemic in rural areas, and transmitted
by skin contact between naked children. Taken back
to European cities by the early mariners the disease
subsequently mutated into a sexually
transmitted disease in order to facilitate
its survival in the colder,
non-tropical climate. In Europe, the wearing
of clothes, even in childhood, inhibited survival of
the non-venereal strain whereas promiscuity
in over-crowded port cities favoured the natural selection
of an organism efficient at sexual transmission. The
disease we know today as syphilis emerged. It was then
re-exported to the Americas in its newer, deadlier
matters worse, was Christian morality, which forced
the native peoples into clothing to hide their 'shame'.
One might reasonably suppose that had the custom of
'light' dressing of the Greeks continued, a lack
of shame about nudity remained the norm, and had the
great bathing establishments of the Romans remained
in service, the world might not have endured the scourge
Peter Murrey Jones, Medieval
Medicine (The British Library, 1998)
I. Loudon (Ed.), Western Medicine (Oxford, 1997)
David Keys, Catastrophe (Century, 1999)
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium (Viking, 1988)
Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind (Heinemann, 2002)
Jenifer Cochrane, The Illustrated History of Medicine (Tiger Books,
Norman Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague (Pocket Books, 2001)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author
and no material herein is sold for profit.