The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 4. The Middle Ages

Roy J. Shephard


In Northern Europe, collapse of the Roman civilization was marked initially by a loss of almost all classical learning, with local tribes reverting to a pattern of subsistence hunting and primitive agriculture. However, despite the sacking of some important libraries, many classical texts were conserved in the Byzantine and Arab worlds. Thus, the earlier knowledge of Greece and Rome was progressively recovered; key documents were translated into Arabic and the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, and the spread of monastic Christianity brought clerics who could read Greek and Latin texts to the northern provinces of Europe. Formal medical care was often under the exclusive jurisdiction of the church. Health and disease were viewed in the context of asceticism; illness was to be borne with patience, and healing sought through faith in saints and holy shrines. But the birth and progressive secularization of medical schools in the latter part of the Middle Ages broke the ecclesiastical strangle-hold, with a renewal of scientific enquiry. Nevertheless, physicians continued to work largely within the confines of Galens classic doctrine of restoring health by balancing the body humours. With this objective, they liberally prescribed leeches, emetics and purgatives. Formally-trained medical practitioners were few in number, and they were often aided in their task by medical technicians (barber/surgeons) as well as by well-educated lay people. The concept of universal health care dawned In many countries, as cities and states began to appoint physicians and barber/surgeons to treat the poor without charge. However, such personnel were few in number. Thus much of the responsibility for health care devolved upon female heads of households, wise women and the sick bays of monasteries. In the latter half of the middle ages, a rapid growth in commerce and the development of trades-guilds attracted a growing fraction of the rural population to major cities. Here, a progressive crumbling and loss of Roman infrastructure compromised urban health. Clean drinking water, public baths and adequate sewage treatment were no longer available to the ordinary city dweller. A flea-borne epidemic of bubonic plague killed perhaps a half of Europes population during the 14th century, but in the aftermath of this disaster effective quarantine regulations were established at major entry-ports of Europe. Many countries took the first steps towards the development of sheltered housing for the elderly. Frequent church holidays and the development of new forms of recreation encouraged fitness maintenance aming those who had migrated to the cities. However, the church often objected to the recreational use of Saints Days, and the monarch also wished his subjects to substitute military training such as archery practice for more general forms of recreation. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the trend to replace vigorous sports by ritualized, social pastimes, public spectacles and sedentary games is also likely to have had an adverse effect upon the fitness of urban populations.


Barber/surgeons, Black Death, Health infra-structure, Herbal remedies; Medical schools; Monasteries, Quarantine, Sheltered housing; State medical services. Tournaments, Wise Women

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ISSN: 19206216