Universities in Medieval Europe

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It’s often said that there was no tradition of scientific medicine in medieval times. According to the usual narrative of the history of progress, medicine in the European Middle Ages – from around the 5th to the 15th centuries – was a formless mass of superstition and folk remedies; the very antithesis of science.

And those who look in medieval medicine for precursors of modern pathology, surgery, antibiotics, or genetics will of course find it a failure. But if we’re looking for a coherent medical system that was intellectually and emotionally satisfying to its practitioners and patients, and based on written authorities, rational enquiry, and formal teaching, then medieval Europe produced one of the most influential and scientific medical systems in history.

Medieval medicine did take many forms. Some of it was non-literate and based on inherited traditions, some on the use of simple herbs, while other remedies were based on blaming elves or demons or sin for sickness. Sometimes it was practised by women for their families and servants.

But if we are careful with our definition of “science”, and use it to mean not (as often happens) what we now think is correct but rather a rationally organised body of knowledge about the natural world, then medieval medicine did use scientific methods.

And it was in the 11th century that Europe witnessed a medical revolution. Scholars and physicians in southern Italy, especially in the city of Salerno, began to study and teach ancient medical texts after a hiatus of 500 years or more. We know this from surviving 11th and 12th-century manuscripts that are only now being collectively studied, especially those of a little known medical textbook called the Articella.

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Universities in Ancient Europe