“Not Dead Yet!” Medieval Medicine Beyond Monty Python

dailydose_darkstrokeToday’s author is Lucy Barnhouse, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department of Fordham University, New York. Her dissertation, which she will defend this winter, examines the effects of religious status on the development of hospitals in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the place of hospitals in the religious and social networks of late medieval cities in the central Rhineland. She has presented on medieval medical history for lay as well as academic audiences, and has been involved with the Footnoting History podcast for the last three years. You can follow her on Twitter at @SingingScholar.

Teaching medieval medicine to undergraduates with widely varying degrees of background knowledge on both medicine and the Middle Ages might seem like an unenviable task. I found it, though, to be one of my most rewarding pedagogical experiences. The medieval, as I’ve discovered, can often function as a safe space for students to explore new ideas and reexamine old ones. Largely unknown, and imagined as definitely Other, it provides room for thoughtful engagement with large issues that might elsewhere be treated as resolved. Discussing medieval hospitals, for instance, can enable students to discuss many questions with contemporary resonance, e.g. how do we access care? What are spaces and places of healthcare, and what do we expect from them? Who is involved in administering hospitals, and what are the implications of how such institutions are involved in other networks, religious or civic… or both?

Author photograph of Bodleian MS Laud Misc 237, original recipes written on the binding leaf of a medical miscellany.
Author photograph of Bodleian MS Laud Misc 237, original recipes written on the binding leaf of a medical miscellany.

Due in part to the interdisciplinary topic, and in part to an early morning time slot that accommodated the needs of students taking labs, the class was a remarkably vibrant mix of humanities and science majors. This enriched our experience immeasurably, as science majors were able to see things in the sources that I was not. Having class discussions led by teams of students proved particularly fruitful. Students proved very ready to share their diverse experiences—and cultural expectations—of medicine, and to work through difficulties and uncertainties together. Such efficient functioning of the class as a body (pun intended) was, I like to think, facilitated by a personality quiz designed to diagnose humoral complexions! As a class, we turned out to be fairly evenly divided between the sanguine and the melancholic, with a few outliers. This assessment led to a lively discussion about the logic or illogic of diagnostic observation, the value of experience, and the dangers of prejudice.

Examining medieval ways of conceptualizing health and evaluating medical practitioners did not come without challenges or surprises. I’m sure that several of my former students still think of Willibald, an eighth-century bishop who smuggled balsam out of the Holy Land, as a drug dealer. But even the rather frustrating source discussion that established this consensus provided an illuminating challenge to my own categories of thought. I realize that, even to historians of medicine, the medieval might seem dauntingly unfamiliar. But the Black Death can provide an effective opening to conversations about compassion fatigue. Getting students to discuss how race and gender affect how bodies are imagined and feared is made easier by engaging with thirteenth-century examples. With diverse and visibly changing cultures of medicine and health, the Middle Ages make a great place to introduce students to the kinds of questions typical of work in the medical humanities.

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