Did You Know?

by The Editors

What the early Christians really thought about medicine and healing

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 101 in 2011 ]

IN THE EARLY YEARS of the faith, pagans and ­Christians shared similar attitudes toward medicine and healing, but the church fathers believed God created the material world for the use of humankind, and this influenced their views of medicine:

Clement held that, within God’s created order, understanding is from God, and many things in life arise from the exercise of human reason, although its ­kindling spark comes from God. Health obtained through medicine is one of these things that has its origin and existence as a consequence of divine Providence as well as human cooperation. . . .

Origen, in a homily on Numbers, quotes Ecclesiasticus 19:19—“All wisdom is from God”—and a little later asks, if all knowledge is from God, what knowledge could have a greater claim to such an ­origin than medicine, the knowledge of health? Just as God causes herbs to grow, so also did he give medical knowledge to men. God did this in his ­kindness, knowing the frailty of our bodies and not wishing for us to be without succor when illness strikes. Thus Origen can call medicine “beneficial and essential to mankind.”

Basil also regarded all the arts as God’s gift, given to remedy nature’s deficiencies. Accordingly, the medical art was given to relieve the sick, “in some degree at least.” Gregory of Nyssa records that, when his sister was ill, their mother had begged her to let a physician treat her, arguing that God gave the art of medicine to men for their preservation. John Chrysostom also writes that God gave us physicians and medicine, and Augustine attributes the healing properties of medicine to God. (Source: Darrel Amundsen, Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.)

don your “sick suit”

By the Middle Ages, long-term residents of hospitals received clothes, in many cases a uniform with a distinctive badge. Black, white, dark brown, blue, and gray were popular uniform colors. Badges might consist of crosses or of an image related to the patron saint of the hospital or to the name or heraldic device of its founder. Distinct styles of uniform might also be worn by staff to distinguish them from patients. Finally, uniforms could prove helpful in keeping tabs on hospital residents in cases where they were allowed to leave the hospital (if, for example, they were not violently ill, or if they were poor or elderly but not infirm).

It’s bedlam in here!

The priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London was founded in 1247 and specialized in mental illness. Its name in colloquial speech was pronounced “Bedlam,” and it became notorious in later years for its sub­standard treatment of patients (which included allowing the public in to look at them for a small admission fee). Its notoriety eventually gave a general word for “chaos” and “uproar” to the English language.

Medical saints

Saints in the early and medieval church whose influence would be specially sought by the ill included Luke (the Gospel writer and noted physician) and Michael (the archangel), along with the following “specialist saints”:

Anthony (251–356) for “St. Anthony’s fire,” which meant ergotism or erysipelas. The disease got its name when, around 1095, the son of the nobleman Gaston of Valloire was cured from it by the relics of St. Anthony the Great in the church of St. Anthony at La-Motte-Saint-Didie. In gratitude, Gaston and his son founded the lay order of the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony to care for pilgrims to the shrine at the church and for the sick, especially those with St. Anthony’s fire.

Christopher (third century?) for epilepsy. St. Christopher was said to be seven and a half feet tall; legend has him bearing Christ across a dangerous river. He was often pictured with the inscription “Whoever shall behold the image of St. Christopher shall not faint or fall on that day.”
Roche or Roch (1295?–1370) for plague. He was supposedly born with a cross marked on his chest and as an adult cured many plague sufferers with the sign of the cross. A cessation of plague in Constance after his death was associated with prayers and processions that were ordered in his honor.
Blaise (d. 316?) for throat diseases. One of the legends of St. Blaise tells of him curing a boy who was choking because of a fishbone in his throat.
Lawrence (d. 258) for backache. St. Lawrence was martyred by being roasted on a gridiron.
Bernadine (1380–1444) for lungs. St. Bernadine was a famous and powerful preacher.
Vitus (fourth century?) for St. Vitus’s dance, or chorea. St. Vitus was supposedly a young boy whose father tortured him to make him renounce the faith, and since St. Vitus’s dance affects children, an association may have sprung up.
Apollonia (d. 248–249) for toothache; she was a virgin martyr who was killed by having all her teeth removed.
Margaret of Antioch (fourth century?) for women in labor. St. Margaret was martyred both for her refusal to renounce Christianity and for her refusal to submit to the advances of a Roman bureaucrat.
In the later Middle Ages some new saints became popular patrons for the sick, and hospital chapels were also dedicated to them; these included Anne (grandmother of ­Jesus), Ursula (a legendary virgin martyr), and Elizabeth of Hungary (see “The charitable revolution,” p. 33).

hospitals

Though most European hospitals were small, serving on average 10–30 patients at any time, the Pantokrator monastery hospital in Constantinople consisted of five wards of 10 beds each, plus an old-age home with space for 24, a leper house, and an outpatient drug dispensary. What really set this model institution apart, however, was its trained staff. Along with an extensive roster of physicians and surgeons, the Pantokrator was served by the following:

• five pharmacists
• one teacher for children in residence (orphans and foundlings)
• one usher
• five laundry women
• one “kettle keeper”
• two cooks
• one groom
• one porter
• one purser
• two general priests
• one “funeral priest”
• two lectors (readers)
• two bakers
• four pallbearers
• one latrine cleaner
• one miller
• a specialist in hernia surgery
• and funding for a craftsman to repair surgical instruments

Hospitals were seen as centers of study as well as charity. Many of the larger ones had good libraries; it was from the medical texts in these libraries that the infirmarius would gain some of his or her medical training (see “The hospital experience,” p. 24). They were also well-stocked with prayer books and other necessities for worship. Hospital staff were encouraged to spend time in the library in study, and books were often read aloud during mealtimes. By the 1200s some hospitals in England were also helping to feed and in some cases provide rooms for poor scholars. Some hospitals paid for tutors in addition to room and board, and some sponsored the scholars for ordination to the priesthood when they grew older. CH

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