Medieval Doctors: Healers in the Middle Ages

Medieval Doctors: Healers in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, from the 5th to the late 15th century, witnessed many changes in European society. Among these were shifts in medical practices and the role of the doctor. Understanding the life, training, and methods of medieval doctors gives us a fascinating glimpse into the evolving world of medicine.

Historical Context

Before diving into the world of medieval doctors, it’s essential to grasp the societal context in which they practiced. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century marked the start of the medieval period. This era saw the fragmentation of European society into small kingdoms, the loss of classical knowledge, and the rise of the Church as a dominant institution.

The Doctor’s Role

Medicine and Religion

Religion played a crucial role in medieval life, and this influence extended into medicine. Many doctors were clergy, and the Church operated many of the period’s hospitals. Divine intervention was often considered just as vital for healing as any medical procedure.

Local Healers and Wise Women

Apart from the formally recognized doctors, many villages had local healers, wise women, or herbalists. These individuals used a combination of folk remedies, herbs, and traditional knowledge to treat the sick. They were often the primary source of healthcare in remote areas where formal medical practitioners were scarce.

Types of Medieval Doctors

In medieval times, medicine was a complex and multifaceted field, reflecting society’s diverse needs and beliefs. The medical practitioners of the time can be broadly categorized into different types.

Physicians were the elite of the medical world, often educated in medical schools or universities. They were well-versed in the classical medical texts of Hippocrates and Galen and practiced according to the principles of humoral theory. Their patients were typically from the upper echelons of society and regarded with great respect.

Surgeons were more focused on practical, hands-on treatments. They dealt with external issues like wounds, fractures, and dislocations. While some surgeons had formal education, many learned their trade through apprenticeships. The separation between physicians and surgeons was quite pronounced, and the latter were often considered to be of lower status.

Local healers, herbalists, and wise women were essential in community healthcare, particularly in rural areas. These practitioners used traditional knowledge, folk remedies, and locally sourced herbs to treat a wide range of ailments. They were often the first point of contact for the sick and offered a more accessible and affordable form of healthcare.

Lastly, the apothecaries were specialists in preparing and dispensing medicines. They often worked alongside physicians, creating the prescribed herbal concoctions, ointments, and potions. Apothecaries were skilled in their craft and contributed significantly to the pharmacological aspect of medieval medicine.

Overall, the types of doctors in the medieval period represented diverse skills, education, and social statuses. Together, they provided a multifaceted approach to healthcare that met the varied needs of the population during that time.

Education and Training

Medical Schools

By the 12th century, the first medical schools began to emerge in Europe, notably in Salerno, Italy. These institutions combined Greco-Roman medical traditions with Arab innovations. Medical students read texts from ancient physicians like Hippocrates and Galen but also newer works from Islamic scholars like Avicenna.


Many medieval doctors learned their craft through apprenticeships. An aspiring doctor would study under a more experienced physician, learning through observation and practice. This hands-on training was invaluable, especially since medical textbooks were rare and costly.

How Did a Medieval Doctor Diagnose Illness?

Diagnosing illness in the medieval period was a complex process that relied on observation, questioning, and the application of prevailing medical theories, most notably the humoral theory.

A medieval doctor’s primary tools for diagnosis were his senses. He would observe the patient’s complexion, posture, and physical condition. He might smell the patient’s breath or body, believing that odors could indicate specific ailments. Listening to the patient’s breathing, coughing, or other bodily sounds was common.

Questioning the patient or their family about symptoms, diet, and lifestyle was essential to the diagnosis. The doctor would try to determine which of the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, or yellow bile) was imbalanced, causing the illness.

Urine analysis was a significant part of the medieval diagnosis. Physicians believed that urine’s color, consistency, and even taste could reveal much about the patient’s internal state. They would often refer to urine wheels, charts that matched urine’s appearance with various diseases.

Astrology also played a role in some diagnoses. A patient’s birth date and the positions of celestial bodies were considered to influence health.

Despite their limited understanding of disease and the body’s workings, medieval doctors’ diagnostic methods were systematic and thoughtful, given their knowledge and tools. While far from modern standards, their efforts to understand and classify illnesses laid the foundations for future medical developments.

Medical Practices and Treatments

Humoral Theory

Central to medieval medicine was the humoral theory inherited from the Greeks. This theory held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Disease was thought to arise from an imbalance of these humors, so treatments aimed to restore balance through various means.


One of the most popular treatments based on the humoral theory was bloodletting. This practice involved cutting a vein or using leeches to draw blood to remove excess blood to restore the body’s balance.

Herbal Remedies

Herbs were integral to medieval medicine. Doctors often had gardens where they grew various medicinal plants. Remedies could range from simple herbal teas to complex concoctions, ointments, and poultices.

Surgery and Surgeons

In the Middle Ages, the roles of doctor and surgeon were distinct. Surgeons were often seen as lower-status practitioners, more akin to barbers (which led to the term “barber-surgeon”). They mainly dealt with external problems like wounds or broken bones. Due to the lack of anesthesia and antiseptics, surgical procedures were painful and had high risks of infection.

Challenges and Limitations

Lack of Knowledge

While medieval doctors did their best with the knowledge they had, they lacked an understanding of essential concepts. The blood circulation, the role of germs in disease transmission, and the importance of hygiene in preventing infections were unknown.

Superstition and Magic

In addition to the humoral theory, many medical practices were influenced by superstition. Charms, amulets, and incantations were sometimes used alongside more practical treatments.

How Were Medieval Doctors Paid? Were They Wealthy?

The payment and wealth of medieval doctors varied greatly, depending on their position, location, expertise, and the societal context in which they operated.

Physicians, often trained in universities or medical schools, typically served the nobility and upper classes. They could be employed by royal or noble households, receiving a regular salary, lodging, and other benefits. Some physicians also maintained private practices, charging fees for their services. Such practitioners were often quite wealthy, enjoying high social status and the trappings of a comfortable life.

Surgeons, on the other hand, often occupied a lower social tier. While skilled surgeons serving in large towns or the employ of the wealthy could earn a decent living, many were closer in status to tradesmen. Their payment might come in the form of money, goods, or barter, and their financial situation was often less stable and prosperous.

Local healers, herbalists, and wise women typically served common folk in rural areas. Their payment might include food, clothing, or other essential items, reflecting a common barter economy in many communities. Monetary wealth was rare for these practitioners, and they often lived modestly.

Apothecaries dealing in medicinal ingredients and concoctions could achieve varying levels of success. Their financial well-being often depended on their reputation, location, and clientele.

Therefore, while some medieval doctors, particularly well-connected physicians, could amass wealth and live comfortably, many others lived modestly. The variety in payment and status among medical practitioners reflected the diverse social, economic, and professional landscape of the time. It was a profession marked by contrasts, where the line between wealth and modest living was often as thin as the balance between health and illness they sought to manage.

Famous Medieval Doctors

The medieval period was rich with medical thinkers and practitioners who left a mark on the field. Some became famous for their writings, teachings, or innovations. Here’s an overview of several prominent medieval doctors:

  1. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179): A German abbess, writer, and philosopher, Hildegard wrote extensively on medicine. Her works included details on herbal remedies and the human body, combining medical knowledge with spiritual insights.
  2. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037): A Persian polymath, Ibn Sina’s “The Canon of Medicine” was a fundamental medical encyclopedia used in both the Islamic world and Europe for centuries. His writings were instrumental in transmitting Greco-Roman medical knowledge and his original insights.
  3. Rhazes (865-925): A Persian physician and alchemist, Rhazes wrote over 200 books on various subjects, including medicine. His “Kitab al-Hawi” was an influential medical encyclopedia, and he made significant contributions to understanding infectious diseases.
  4. Maimonides (1135-1204): A Jewish physician and philosopher, Maimonides served as a court physician in Egypt. His medical writings, including the “Guide for the Perplexed,” significantly influenced Jewish and Islamic medical thought.
  5. Trotula of Salerno (11th century): A female physician from the medical school of Salerno, Trotula is associated with several works on women’s health. Her writings included information on childbirth, feminine hygiene, and cosmetics.
  6. Roger Bacon (1214-1294): An English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon wrote on various scientific subjects, including medicine. His emphasis on empiricism and experimentation was ahead of his time.
  7. Guy de Chauliac (1300-1368): A French physician and surgeon, Guy de Chauliac’s “Chirurgia Magna” was a vital surgical reference for centuries. It detailed surgical techniques, instruments, and treatments.
  8. John of Arderne (1307-1370): An English surgeon known for his treatments of anal fistulas, a common problem for horseback-riding nobles. His methods showed an advanced understanding of surgery and anesthesia.
  9. Mondino de Liuzzi (1270-1326): An Italian physician who performed the first recorded public human dissection in 1315. His book “Anathomia” became a standard anatomical text in European medical schools.
  10. Hugh of Lucca (1150-1252): An Italian surgeon who challenged the common practice of treating wounds with acidic substances, advocating for gentle wound cleansing. His ideas laid the foundations for modern antiseptic theories.

These individuals were part of a rich tapestry of medical practitioners and thinkers in the medieval period. They bridged ancient wisdom and emerging insights, shaping medicine in ways that resonate even today. Their works are not merely historical artifacts but landmarks in the ongoing journey of understanding and caring for the human body.

Legacy and the Dawn of the Renaissance

The late medieval period saw the beginnings of significant changes in medicine. Starting in the 14th century, the Renaissance spurred a renewed interest in classical knowledge and scientific inquiry. Medical texts were re-examined, leading to more accurate anatomical studies and the gradual discrediting of the humoral theory.

Yet, the medieval period laid the groundwork for these advances. Medical schools, the emergence of hospitals, and the systematic study of diseases are all rooted in the Middle Ages. Despite their limitations, medieval doctors formed an essential link in the long chain of medical history, bridging the gap between ancient traditions and the dawn of modern medicine.

In conclusion, while often overshadowed by the more scientifically rigorous Renaissance period, medieval medicine offers a rich tapestry of dedication, innovation, and resilience. Working with limited knowledge and resources, these doctors paved the way for the medical milestones that followed, and their legacy continues to influence the field today.