Medieval medicine can offer surprising insights into our own practice

An illuminated medieval almanac showing a man surrounded by signs of the zodiac
Cropped from English folding almanac in Latin, early 15th century. MS. 8932, Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 licence.

With its array of drugs, treatments and diagnostic tools, modern medicine is far more advanced than medicine practiced in the medieval period. However, a new collection of articles on Medievalism and the Medical Humanities shows that pre-modern ideas of medicine, health and the body contain surprisingly topical messages that are relevant for healthcare today.

Writing in the journal postmedieval, the editors of this special issue – Jamie McKinstry and Corinne Saunders – suggest that we need to take a long view of medical history. This will not only show how understanding has shifted over time, but also that the past can open new ways to reflect critically on our current medical culture. As they suggest:

Medieval medical theory and related discourses…did not focus exclusively on diagnosis of disease but assumed the need for a wider gaze. Contemporary medical practice and public health initiatives have begun to recognise the value of holistic approaches, of identifying the origins and social contexts of medical conditions, rather than simply prescribing treatments.

The essays in the collection use the lens of medicine to ask fresh questions about medieval society that are interesting in their own right. How influential were patients in shaping medieval conceptions of medicine and wellbeing? What roles did society, literature, culture and language play in contemporary understandings of medicine? What were the boundaries between illness and health? These approaches may well answer that embodied experiences in distant lives, cultures and centuries were radically different to our own. However, the essays reveal some profound connections to modern times as well. History can offer medicine some startling insights that we have only begun to explore.

The following essays from this special issue of the postmedieval journal are available to download for free:

The remaining articles are available to subscribers only. 

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