Drug Use in the Middle Ages

Drug Histories
Drug Histories
Drug Use in the Middle Ages
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In our last episode we looked at Drug Use in Hellenistic and Roman Times. In this episode we look at drug use in the Middle Ages. For clarifications purposes, the Medieval period started with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD and lasted until the 15th century.  

As we saw in our discussion of drug use in the Roman empire, the influence of Greek medicine, namely the Hippocratic Corpus, lasted well beyond the Greek Empire into the 19th Century[1]. This was predicated on health being determined by the proper balance of four humours: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. With the benefit of modern understanding of medicine, this is now known to have been false. However, in medieval times, true progression in scientific inquiry appears to have stalled, and in some cases regressed. 

Rachel Hajar[2], writing in the Journal Heart Views, describes it this way:

“The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” ended when Rome fell to Germanic tribes in the 5th century AD. The Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians had pushed forward medical knowledge, but after the demise of these civilizations, artistic, cultural, and scientific outputs were sadly lacking when compared to both earlier and later times. Medical knowledge stagnated in the Middle Ages and did not develop until the 17th/18th centuries.

Hajar provides more contextual information that suggests the cause for this stagnation and decline: 

“The center of Western learning shifted to Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which had been Christian since the 4th century AD, with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. The Church quickly gained converts – and power – throughout Western Europe.

The Roman Catholic Church effectively dominated what direction the medical world took. Any view different from the established Roman Catholic view was labelled heresy and punished accordingly. The Roman Catholic Church stated that illnesses were punishments from God and those who were ill were so because they were sinners. No one contradicted such world view; it was accepted. Suffering was seen as part of the human condition. As people became obsessed with their souls, they neglected their bodies; medicine became a matter of faith and prescriptions became prayers. Medicine became steeped in superstition. Ideas about the origin and cure of disease were based on factors such as destiny, sin, and heavenly influences. Therefore, in this period, there was no tradition of scientific medicine, and observations went hand in hand with spiritual and religious influences. Medicine during the Middle Ages was composed of a mixture of existing ideas from antiquity and spiritual influences. Standard medical knowledge was based chiefly upon surviving Greek and Roman texts preserved in monasteries and elsewhere.”

This makes for a sad picture of the state of medical understanding. Some of the views described by Hajar persist to this day. Despite these vies, however, we still find that use of drugs for medicinal and recreational purposes persisted. 

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[1] https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/drugs-in-the-middle-ages/

[2] Rachel Hajar, M.D., The Air of History (Part II) Medicine in the Middle Ages, Heart Views. 2012 Oct-Dec; 13(4): 158–162. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573364/  

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