28 November 2005

What 14th-century Medicine Could Do

Fourteenth-century medicine was not without accomplishment. It could amputate limbs and normally cauterize the wounds in an effective manner. It had precious knowledge of herbal remedies for headache, minor stomachaches, menstrual cramps, and other marginal afflictions, possibly including psychological depression. But it was impotent in the face of an epidemic.

Medieval physicians still followed the theories of the second-century Greek doctor Galen, which attributed disease to imbalance in the bodily conditions, or "humours," of an individual. The main instrument of diagnosis was eyeballing the color and consistency of urine.

The prime remedies for illnesses involved restoration of putative bodily balance through purgation (enemas) or bloodletting. Drawing blood from a sick patient was considered a credible remedy until the nineteenth century. Cleaning the bowels was thought to have a curative effect. Enemas are still a popular home remedy. Nineteenth-century medicine introduced antiseptic surgery and anesthesia and smallpox inoculation but in the face of a pandemic outbreak was not much better off than the physicians of fourteenth-century England.

Faced with a worldwide outbreak of what was arbitrarily called Spanish influenza in 1918, which killed fifty million people within a year, the early twentieth-century medical profession was not much more effective in terms of diagnosis and cure than its medieval counterpart facing the Black Death. Essentially the flu pandemic of 1918 came and went without anyone knowing why, in spite of the capacity to see under a microscope some viruses and bacteria that were totally invisible to the physicians of the fourteenth century.
SOURCE: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor (Harper Perennial, 2002), pp. 9-10

Cantor is no Tuchman, but I'll see if I can find a few passages to excerpt, even if I have to rearrange them to counteract the author's tendency to ramble about.

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