Medieval medicine: killer or cure?

In the modern imagination, quack remedies and painful, futile surgery awaited those unlucky enough to fall ill in the Middle Ages. Yet, argues Elma Brenner, our ancestors had a far more sophisticated appreciation of their health than you might think

A doctor examines a patient's urine in an illustration from the 13th century. Uroscopy, the study of urine, was one of the medieval physician's most effective tools, and is still employed today. (Photo by Bridgman Art Library)

The key to assessing patients’ health lay in the contents of their bladders. So wrote the physician Archimatthaeus when issuing advice to his fellow doctors back in the 12th century. “If the change in pulse indicates that the individual is sick, the kind of disease is still better indicated by the urine,” Archimatthaeus counselled. “While you look at the urine for a long time you [should] pay attention to its colour, substance and quantity, and to its contents.”

Conjure an image in your mind’s eye of a medieval doctor at work, and there’s every chance that leeches, quack potions and holes being drilled into hapless patients’ skulls will feature prominently. Considered, evidence-based and potentially effective advice like that offered by Archimatthaeus almost certainly will not. But then, medieval medicine rarely conformed to modern stereotypes.

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