Wel knew he the olde Esculapius
And Deyscorides and eek Rufus
Olde Ypocras, Haly and Galeyn,
Serapion, Razi and Avycen,
Averrois, Damascien and Constantyn,
Bernard and Gatesden and Gilbertyn.
The Arab Roots of European Medicine
Written by David W. Tschanz
In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales , Geoffrey Chaucer identifies the authorities used by his “Doctour of Physic” in the six lines quoted above. The list includes four Arab physicians: Jesu Haly (Ibn ‘Isa), Razi (Al-Razi, or Rhazes), Avycen (Ibn Sina, or Avicenna) and Averrois (Ibn Rushd, or Averroes). These four did not make Chaucer’s list only to add an exotic flavor to his late-14th-century poetry. Chaucer cited them because they were regarded as among the great medical authorities of the ancient world and the European Middle Ages, physicians whose textbooks were used in European medical schools, and would be for centuries to come. First collecting, then translating, then augmenting and finally codifying the classical Greco-Roman heritage that Europe had lost, Arab physicians of the eighth to eleventh century laid the foundations of the institutions and the science of modern medicine.
After the collapse of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, Europe lost touch with much of its intellectual heritage. Of Greek science, all that remained were Pliny’s Encyclopedia and Boethius’s treatises on logic and mathematics; the Latin library was so limited that European theologians found it nearly impossible to expand their knowledge of their own scriptures.
The center of Europe’s new world view became the church, which exerted profound new influences in medicine. Because Christianity emphasized compassion and care for the sick, monastic orders ran fine hospitals—but they did not function as hospitals do today. They were simply places to take seriously ill people, where they were expected to either recover or die as God willed. There were no learned physicians to attend them, only kindly monks who dispensed comfort and the sacraments, but not medicines.
Because the Christian church viewed care of the soul as far more important than care of the body, medical treatment and even physical cleanliness were little valued, and mortification of the flesh was seen as a sign of saintliness. In time, nearly all Europeans came to look upon illness as a condition caused by supernatural forces, which might take the form of diabolical possession. Hence, cures could only be effected by religious means. Every malady had a patron saint to whom prayers were directed by the patient, family, friends and the community. Upper respiratory infections were warded off by a blessing of the throat with crossed candles on the feast of Saint Blaise. Saint Roch became the patron of plague victims. Saint Nicaise was the source of protection against smallpox. Kings, regarded as divinely appointed, were believed to be able to cure scrofula and skin diseases, among other maladies, with the “royal touch.”
With the study of disease and of patients neglected, licensed medicine as an independent craft virtually vanished. Those physicians who endured were mostly connected with monasteries and abbeys. But even for them, the generally accepted goal was less to discover causes, or even to heal, than to study the writings of other physicians and comment on their work. In the middle of the seventh century, the Catholic church banned surgery by monks, because it constituted a danger to their souls. Since nearly all of the surgeons of that era were clerics, the decree effectively ended the practice of surgery in Europe.
At roughly the same time, another civilization was rising in the east. The coming of Islam, also in the seventh century (See Aramco World, November/December 1991), led to a hundred years of continuous geographical expansion and an unprecedented era of ferment in all branches of learning. The Arabs rapidly melded the various cultures of the Islamic domain, and Arabic—the language of the Qur’an—became the universal language. By the 10th century a single language linked peoples from the Rann of Kutch to the south of France, and Arabic became to the East what Latin and Greek had been to the West—the language of literature, the arts and sciences, and the common tongue of the educated.
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