Medieval Reading Group

Medieval Stereotypes, Health and Medicine (Medieval Reading Group)

For our introductory session of this year’s Medieval Reading Group, we had to do little more than reach for the Medieval Myths Bingo sheet to select our first theme of health and medicine. Among the common stereotypes found on this amusing bingo sheet are the notions that there was no medical knowledge and that common people never wash. We are keen to sweep away these myths in our group!

The readings for this session were:
– Audrey Meaney. ‘The Practice of Medicine in England about the Year 1000’. Social History of Medicine, Vol 13, No 2, (2000): pp221-237.
– Hildegard of Bingen. ‘Physica’. – first few pages of the section on plants (available on Google Books)
 – Marie-Christine Daunay, Jules Janick, and Harry S. Paris. ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis: Horticulture and Health in the Late Middle Ages’. Chronica Horticulturae, Vol 49, No 3 (2009).

Meaney’s article on the practice of medicine provided a basic overview of the types of textual evidence we have surviving from the middle ages regarding medical knowledge and practices, whilst Bingen’s Physica and Daunay et al.’s special issue furnished us with examples of such knowledge in two different sources.

Our discussions followed on from Meaney’s article, highlighting the role that religion had to play in medicinal practice. The article mentions how religious elements such as reciting a prayer or blessing whilst administering the physical remedy itself was likely a common practice, but this is not the only hand that ecclecsiastical authorities had in shaping medical knowledge. The copying of scrolls into the manuscript collections of the Church entailed a selection process, appropriating cultural elements across geographical space and historical time, from Ancient Greek tradition as in the theory of the four humours, via Arabic manuscripts and practices from the earlier medieval period. The ecclesiastical records also did not reflect favourably on women’s role in medicinal practices as midwives accused of being ‘abortionists’ in the words of some. This also raised questions of the quality and bias of different texts, and many of these ideas will undoubtedly be echoed in future sessions.

For those who are interested in reading more about medieval health and hygiene, we have particularly enjoyed these blog posts:
I assure you, medieval people bathed‘ (mildly NSFW)
Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

The next session we will be looking at medieval marriage, sex and relationships – do join us if you are available!

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