Medicine in the English Middle Ages

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 27 March 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:880
  1. Christopher Lawrence, reader in history of medicine
  1. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London

    Faye Getz

    Princeton University Press, £21.95, pp 174

    ISBN 0691085226

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    The term medieval, although available for simple descriptive use, is also open to pejorative employment. How would you like your values, way of life, or indeed your medical practice described as medieval? Such a use is an inheritance of the stigmatisation of the middle ages as superstitious and priest-ridden by our rationalist grandparents, notably Edward Gibbon. Outside this tradition, however, has been another that has sought to understand medieval art and religion in its own terms. The same is true of medicine, and while some have found the middle ages a source of jolly jokes about barbaric medical treatment others have endeavoured to understand medieval healing as part of a whole way of life. Faye Getz is heir to this latter approach and wears the mantle in most distinguished fashion. This is truly a very fine book.

    Drawing on the best of modern scholarship and her own extensive researches into such things as legal records, case books, and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Getz slowly builds up a picture of the literate medicine of medieval England. For the most part she is not concerned with the healing practices of ordinary folk, and original accounts of these are few anyway. Rather she seeks to display the world in which the ancestors of modern orthodox medicine practised. As might be expected, religion and medicine can scarcely be teased apart in this world; a point wonderfully illustrated by the works of the Franciscan Roger Bacon. For Bacon, the purpose of textual criticism was to restore texts to their origianal state before Babel, alchemy to return base metals to gold, and medicine to restore the body to its prelapsarian glory. Where medicine ends and philosophy and alchemy begin is far more apparent to us than it was to Bacon.

    In what is actually more of an extended essay—92 pages of prose plus extensive notes and bibliography—Getz takes the reader through the English practitioner abroad and foreigners in Britain, the founding of the medical faculties of Oxford and Cambridge, the medical text, and much more. Those who seek to preserve the middle ages as a bran tub of anecdotes about bawdiness and drunkenness will find much ammunition in her account of coroners' courts. Walter de Elmeleye, for example, died after a brawl when the drunken Alice Quenbetere engaged in “wordy strife” with two workmen, calling them “tredekeiles.”

    Written with a deft and confident hand, this book will appeal to amateur and scholar alike as one of the best examples of modern medical history.

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