Connecting Medieval Medicine and Philosophy

One of the perks of interning at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies is that going to cool lectures can qualify as work. That was the case last Friday, when Professor Faith Wallis from McGill gave the Institute’s 2013 Etienne Gilson lecture.

Wallis’s lecture was on the twelfth century transformation of medieval medicine from a mostly practical art into a comprehensive philosophical system. The focus was on the work of the late twelfth-century doctor Bartholomaeus of Salerno, and on how Bartholomaeus’s writing integrated Aristotelian philosophy and introduced the idea that medicine as a bodily parallel to ethics and as an equal of any other branch of philosophy.

A lot of Wallis’s research examines the Articella, a compilation of medical texts used to teach twelfth-century doctors. Bartholomaeus’s commentaries on the Articella and on Galen’s Tegni, the other main teaching text, are full of allusions to new straight-from-the-Greek translations of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and other philosophical texts. Sure, the man still mixed a mean purgative, but a lot of emphasis was a on the moral and philosophical system Bartholomaeus put behind it. There was enough of a system that one of Bartholomaeus’s student’s students could, with a straight face, call priests “spiritual physicians” who should follow rules like those followed by “bodily physicians” when they formulated treatments for sins and vices.

We say “Galenic” or “Hippocratic” as a shorthand when we talk about humoral medicine (this Science Museum website is a good explanation of the basic concept) but medieval medicine wasn’t just a repetition of Greek or Roman knowledge. The Articella had five books, only two of which – the Aphorisms and the Prognostics – were actually by an ancient doctor, Hippocrates. Two more were written by Byzantine doctors in the early Middle Ages. The fifth and most important was an Arabic text by Hunayn ibn Ishaq from the ninth-century. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Bartholomaeus and the whole Salernitan school of medicine were where they were, in southern Italy, because the region was at the intersection of the Latin, Greek, and Arabic-speaking worlds. (The only place more perfectly poised between the three was Sicily.)

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