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Sin, Salvation and the Medieval Physician: Religious Influences on Fourteenth Century Medicine
By Chloe Buzzard
BA Honors Thesis, Western Oregon University, 2017
Introduction: The global outbreak of the Black Death in the fourteenth century tested medieval medical theories. Over several hundred years, people throughout various parts of the world saw their populations plummet; this unknown killer would strike down people from all levels of social class and spare very few. With a mysterious disease wiping out populations globally, physicians sought to explain and combat the plague through religion and medicine.
During the plague’s fourteenth century outbreak, a variety of medical cures and theories existed that would baffle the modern physician, but perhaps the most striking difference between fourteenth-century medicine and modern medicine was the involvement of religion. In a time where everyone turned to God for answers regarding the unknown, the medical communities and religious institutions were intermingled. In Europe and the Middle East, societies practicing Islam and Christianity had developed medical fields and developed systems of education.
Medieval medicine in Christian Europe and the Islamic world of the Middle East and Spain was a mixture of existing ideas from antiquity and religious influences. Most medieval ideas about medicine were based the work of Greek and
Roman physicians, Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC) and Galen (AD 129 – 216). Their ideas set out a theory of the human body relating to the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and to four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).
While the foundational medical knowledge was generally the same across societies of both religions, differences existed in how medical practitioners interpreted the same ancient texts differently. During the time, there were 3 main Abrahamic monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. These religions had the same initial origin, the belief in a single god and followers of all three of these religions were believed to be descendants of the patriarch Abraham.
The biggest difference between Islam and Christianity in relation to medicine, was the meaning of sin and salvation. Medieval Christianity emphasized the concept of original sin, in which all humans born were inherently sinful and must go through the appropriate steps to absolve themselves and be saved such as through baptism and through confession and prayer. In Islam, this concept of original sin, did not exist and while prayer was a part of the daily routine, the significance was not for confession and penance like it was in Christianity. The differing notions of sin and salvation are important because they signal a split in interpreting classical antiquity.