In medieval and renaissance Europe, ailments and afflictions were quite common and occasionally deadly due to limited medical knowledge. Many illnesses, usually internal ones, were generally thought to be caused by elves, demons, dwarves or other mischievous and invisible beings. The people of the medieval and renaissance periods relied on magic as a way to attempt to cure a person faced with these problems, and there were a multitude of healing methods available to them. Many of these remedies were known to work by word of mouth. Other well known remedies include “like to like” herbs, which were herbs thought to work on certain areas of the body due to their likeness to that particular body part (for example, an herb shaped like an eye was thought to improve vision, and so on.). Further instances include herbal remedies that claim to work only when certain incantations are said or specific rituals are done while using them. Practitioners themselves were often expected to know how to employ these techniques properly; midwives being expected to know magical techniques to prevent complications in child birth, or healers using spells and charms to cure the sick, to name a few examples.
These were discovered to work through much trial and error, and healers of this time seemed to have little care as to the inner workings of a cure. “...the distinction between occult and manifest power seems perhaps beside the point: what mattered was whether a remedy worked, not how.”1 Such heavy usage of magical aid could lead one to believe that this combination of medical knowledge and magic would be intolerably unscientific and that there was no insight to the workings of these cures. However, if we take the time to look, we can see that the knowledge of the human body at the time and the remedies used to cure people have a connection with science.
We can first look at the study of the four humors. The four humors of the body, which were melancholy (black bile), choler (yellow bile), phlegm and blood, all needed to be kept in balance to retain good health. An excess of any of these would lead to sickness and the body would try to get rid of the surplus liquids through urination or other bodily excretions. To keep the humors in balance, a combination of medicines, diet, and blood letting would be prescribed.
Blood letting was a science in itself, and one would usually see a barber surgeon for such a prescription. A barber surgeon would be person skilled in both hair cutting and blood letting. To be a proper barber surgeon, one would need to know how to let blood correctly, which included the proper cutting of the skin, how much blood should be allowed to be let, and how to staunch the blood flow. In addition to this, one would only be considered a properly trained barber surgeon if they were knowledgeable in astrology. They would have to know that there were certain times of the month or year when blood should or should not be let, according to the signs of the zodiac.
The study of astrology with intent for medical usage was quite important and displays a great deal of scientific involvement with medical magic. Astrology had such importance in medical magic that some universities would not let you practice medicine unless you had passed a course in astrology. The signs of the zodiac were linked to certain body parts and humors. Additionally, astrology was used to make a proper diagnosis of an illness, establish what the appropriate treatments were, and determine the correct time for administration of these treatments.
Herbal remedies were often used with specific attention to celestial bodies. “Certain plants can cure lunacy if they are wrapped in red cloth and tied around the lunatic’s head under a specified astrological sign while the moon is waxing. One should go out before sunrise to pluck a herb. Fragments of bark are more potent if they come from the eastern side of the tree, where they can absorb the rays of the rising sun.”2 Such a close interest to these astrological details show a methodical and systematic attention to factors thought to be important.
Medical gemstone and mineral usage also had scientific undertones. Often certain stones or minerals were used to administer treatment based on their astrological correspondence. Much like with the four humors and body parts, certain stones correlated with certain heavenly bodies and zodiac signs. Both the lapidariums of St. Albert the Great (1206-1280) and the theologian Raymond Lulli (1235-1315) discuss the more scientific workings of gemstones and minerals. St. Albert the Great’s discusses their astrological significance, while Raymond Lull’s discusses their astrological as well as their alchemical properties.
In addition, we see an increase of scholastically trained physicians in the 13th century due to the rise of the university. Admittedly, the basis of their training was the classical writings on the subject of medicine, and therefore university educated physicians learned a type of medicine that was still heavily steeped with magical undertones. However, the fact that there was a movement to standardize medical training shows a desire to step away from the magical aspects of medicine.
These efforts showed that though the people of medieval and renaissance Europe relied heavily on magical curative means, they often had underlying scientific connections to them. The study of the four humors shows an attempt was made to explore the human body and its inner workings. The heavy influence of astronomy on the usage of everything from medicinal herbs to blood letting to gemstone use also demonstrates a desire for a more scientific understanding of curative properties. Although with a modern world perspective these aspects may not seem very scientific, we see with the people of the medieval and renaissance era an innate and specifically tuned consideration for the world around them that could be nothing other than scientific.
1. Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1989) 66-67.
2. Kieckhefer, 67