History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom

Author: Andrew Dickson White

VII. Theological Discouragement of Medicine.

While various churchmen, building better than they knew, thus did something to lay foundations for medical study, the Church authorities, as a rule, did even more to thwart it among the very men who, had they been allowed liberty, would have cultivated it to the highest advantage.

Then, too, we find cropping out every where the feeling that, since supernatural means are so abundant, there is something irreligious in seeking cure by natural means: ever and anon we have appeals to Scripture, and especially to the case of King Asa, who trusted to physicians rather than to the priests of Jahveh, and so died. Hence it was that St. Bernard declared that monks who took medicine were guilty of conduct unbecoming to religion. Even the School of Salerno was held in aversion by multitudes of strict churchmen, since it prescribed rules for diet, thereby indicating a belief that diseases arise from natural causes and not from the malice of the devil: moreover, in the medical schools Hippocrates was studied, and he had especially declared that demoniacal possession is "nowise more divine, nowise more infernal, than any other disease." Hence it was, doubtless, that the Lateran Council, about the beginning of the thirteenth century, forbade physicians, under pain of exclusion from the Church, to undertake medical treatment without calling in ecclesiastical advice.

This view was long cherished in the Church, and nearly two hundred and fifty years later Pope Pius V revived it by renewing the command of Pope Innocent and enforcing it with penalties. Not only did Pope Pius order that all physicians before administering treatment should call in "a physician of the soul," on the ground, as he declares, that "bodily infirmity frequently arises from sin," but he ordered that, if at the end of three days the patient had not made confession to a priest, the medical man should cease his treatment, under pain of being deprived of his right to practise, and of expulsion from the faculty if he were a professor, and that every physician and professor of medicine should make oath that he was strictly fulfilling these conditions.

Out of this feeling had grown up another practice, which made the development of medicine still more difficult—the classing of scientific men generally with sorcerers and magic-mongers: from this largely rose the charge of atheism against physicians, which ripened into a proverb, "Where there are three physicians there are two atheists."[306]

[306] "Ubi sunt tres medici ibi sunt duo athei." For the bull of Pius V, see the Bullarium Romanum, ed. Gaude, Naples, 1882, tom. vii, pp. 430, 431.

Magic was so common a charge that many physicians seemed to believe it themselves. In the tenth century Gerbert, afterward known as Pope Sylvester II, was at once suspected of sorcery when he showed a disposition to adopt scientific methods; in the eleventh century this charge nearly cost the life of Constantine Africanus when he broke from the beaten path of medicine; in the thirteenth, it gave Roger Bacon, one of the greatest benefactors of mankind, many years of imprisonment, and nearly brought him to the stake: these cases are typical of very many.

Still another charge against physicians who showed a talent for investigation was that of Mohammedanism and Averroism; and Petrarch stigmatized Averroists as "men who deny Genesis and bark at Christ."[307]

[307] For Averroes, see Renan, Averroes et l’Averroisme, Paris, 1861, pp. 327-335. For a perfectly just statement of the only circumstances which can justify a charge of atheism, see Rev. Dr. Deems, in Popular Science Monthly, February, 1876.

The effect of this widespread ecclesiastical opposition was, that for many centuries the study of medicine was relegated mainly to the lowest order of practitioners. There was, indeed, one orthodox line of medical evolution during the later Middle Ages: St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that the forces of the body are independent of its physical organization, and that therefore these forces are to be studied by the scholastic philosophy and the theological method, instead of by researches into the structure of the body; as a result of this, mingled with survivals of various pagan superstitions, we have in anatomy and physiology such doctrines as the increase and decrease of the brain with the phases of the moon, the ebb and flow of human vitality with the tides of the ocean, the use of the lungs to fan the heart, the function of the liver as the seat of love, and that of the spleen as the centre of wit.

Closely connected with these methods of thought was the doctrine of signatures. It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he has provided: hence it was held that bloodroot, on account of its red juice, is good for the blood; liverwort, having a leaf like the liver, cures diseases of the liver; eyebright, being marked with a spot like an eye, cures diseases of the eyes; celandine, having a yellow juice, cures jaundice; bugloss, resembling a snake’s head, cures snakebite; red flannel, looking like blood, cures blood-taints, and therefore rheumatism; bear’s grease, being taken from an animal thickly covered with hair, is recommended to persons fearing baldness.[308]

[308] For a summary of the superstitions which arose under the theological doctrine of signatures, see Dr. Eccles’s admirable little tract on the Evolution of Medical Science, p. 140; see also Scoffern, Science and Folk Lore, p. 76.

Still another method evolved by this theological pseudoscience was that of disgusting the demon with the body which he tormented—hence the patient was made to swallow or apply to himself various unspeakable ordures, with such medicines as the livers of toads, the blood of frogs and rats, fibres of the hangman’s rope, and ointment made from the body of gibbeted criminals. Many of these were survivals of heathen superstitions, but theologic reasoning wrought into them an orthodox significance. As an example of this mixture of heathen with Christian magic, we may cite the following from a medieval medical book as a salve against "nocturnal goblin visitors": "Take hop plant, wormwood, bishopwort, lupine, ash-throat, henbane, harewort, viper’s bugloss, heathberry plant, cropleek, garlic, grains of hedgerife, githrife, and fennel. Put these worts into a vessel, set them under the altar, sing over them nine masses, boil them in butter and sheep’s grease, add much holy salt, strain through a cloth, throw the worts into running water. If any ill tempting occur to a man, or an elf or goblin night visitors come, smear his body with this salve, and put it on his eyes, and cense him with incense, and sign him frequently with the sign of the cross. His condition will soon be better."[309]

[309] For a list of unmentionable ordures used in Germany near the end of the seventeenth century, see Lammert, Volksmedizin und medizinischer Aberglaube in Bayern, Wurzburg, 1869, p. 34, note. For the English prescription given, see Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wort-cunning, and Star-craft of Early England, in the Master of the Rolls’ series, London, 1865, vol. ii, pp. 345 and following. Still another of these prescriptions given by Cockayne covers three or four octavo pages. For very full details of this sort of sacred pseudo-science in Germany, with accounts of survivals of it at the present time, see Wuttke, Prof. der Theologie in Halle, Der Deutsche Volksaberglaube der Gegenwart, Berlin, 1869, passim. For France, see Rambaud, Histoire de la Civilisation francaise, pp. 371 et seq.

As to surgery, this same amalgamation of theology with survivals of pagan beliefs continued to check the evolution of medical science down to the modern epoch. The nominal hostility of the Church to the shedding of blood withdrew, as we have seen, from surgical practice the great body of her educated men; hence surgery remained down to the fifteenth century a despised profession, its practice continued largely in the hands of charlatans, and down to a very recent period the name "barber-surgeon" was a survival of this. In such surgery, the application of various ordures relieved fractures; the touch of the hangman cured sprains; the breath of a donkey expelled poison; friction with a dead man’s tooth cured toothache.[310]

[310] On the low estate of surgery during the Middle Ages, see the histories of medicine already cited, and especially Kotelmann, Gesundheitspflege im Mittelalter, Hamburg, 1890, pp. 216 et seq.

The enormous development of miracle and fetich cures in the Church continued during century after century, and here probably lay the main causes of hostility between the Church on the one hand and the better sort of physicians on the other; namely, in the fact that the Church supposed herself in possession of something far better than scientific methods in medicine. Under the sway of this belief a natural and laudable veneration for the relics of Christian martyrs was developed more and more into pure fetichism.

Thus the water in which a single hair of a saint had been dipped was used as a purgative; water in which St. Remy’s ring had been dipped cured fevers; wine in which the bones of a saint had been dipped cured lunacy; oil from a lamp burning before the tomb of St. Gall cured tumours; St. Valentine cured epilepsy; St. Christopher, throat diseases; St. Eutropius, dropsy; St. Ovid, deafness; St. Gervase, rheumatism; St. Apollonia, toothache; St. Vitus, St. Anthony, and a multitude of other saints, the maladies which bear their names. Even as late as 1784 we find certain authorities in Bavaria ordering that any one bitten by a mad dog shall at once put up prayers at the shrine of St. Hubert, and not waste his time in any attempts at medical or surgical cure.[311] In the twelfth century we find a noted cure attempted by causing the invalid to drink water in which St. Bernard had washed his hands. Flowers which had rested on the tomb of a saint, when steeped in water, were supposed to be especially efficacious in various diseases. The pulpit everywhere dwelt with unction on the reality of fetich cures, and among the choice stories collected by Archbishop Jacques de Vitry for the use of preachers was one which, judging from its frequent recurrence in monkish literature, must have sunk deep into the popular mind: "Two lazy beggars, one blind, the other lame, try to avoid the relics of St. Martin, borne about in procession, so that they may not be healed and lose their claim to alms. The blind man takes the lame man on his shoulders to guide him, but they are caught in the crowd and healed against their will."[312]

[311] See Baas, p. 614; aslo Biedermann.

[312] For the efficacy of flowers, see the Bollandist Lives of the Saints, cited in Fort, p. 279; also pp. 457, 458. For the story of those unwillingly cured, see the Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, edited by Prof. T. F. Crane, of Cornell University, London, 1890, pp. 52, 182.

Very important also throughout the Middle Ages were the medical virtues attributed to saliva. The use of this remedy had early Oriental sanction. It is clearly found in Egypt. Pliny devotes a considerable part of one of his chapters to it; Galen approved it; Vespasian, when he visited Alexandria, is said to have cured a blind man by applying saliva to his eves; but the great example impressed most forcibly upon the medieval mind was the use of it ascribed in the fourth Gospel to Jesus himself: thence it came not only into Church ceremonial, but largely into medical practice.[313]

[313] As to the use of saliva in medicine, see Story, Castle of St. Angelo, and Other Essays, London, 1877, pp. 208 and elsewhere. For Pliny, Galen, and others, see the same, p. 211; see also the book of Tobit, chap. xi, 2-13. For the case of Vespasian, see Suetonius, Life of Vespasian; also Tacitus, Historiae, lib. iv, c. 81. For its use by St. Francis Xavier, see Coleridge, Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, London, 1872.

As the theological atmosphere thickened, nearly every country had its long list of saints, each with a special power over some one organ or disease. The clergy, having great influence over the medical schools, conscientiously mixed this fetich medicine with the beginnings of science. In the tenth century, even at the School of Salerno, we find that the sick were cured not only by medicine, but by the relics of St. Matthew and others.

Human nature, too, asserted itself, then as now, by making various pious cures fashionable for a time and then allowing them to become unfashionable. Just as we see the relics of St. Cosmo and St. Damian in great vogue during the early Middle Ages, but out of fashion and without efficacy afterward, so we find in the thirteenth century that the bones of St. Louis, having come into fashion, wrought multitudes of cures, while in the fourteenth, having become unfashionable, they ceased to act, and gave place for a time to the relics of St. Roch of Montpellier and St. Catherine of Sienna, which in their turn wrought many cures until they too became out of date and yielded to other saints. Just so in modern times the healing miracles of La Salette have lost prestige in some measure, and those of Lourdes have come into fashion.[314]

[314] For one of these lists of saints curing diseaes, see Pettigrew, On Superstitions connected with Medicine; for another, see Jacob, Superstitions Populaires, pp. 96-100; also Rydberg, p. 69; also Maury, Rambaud, and others. For a comparison of fashions in miracles with fashions in modern healing agents, see Littre, Medecine et Medecins, pp. 118, 136 and elsewhere; also Sprengel, vol. ii, p. 143.

Even such serious matters as fractures, calculi, and difficult parturition, in which modern science has achieved some of its greatest triumphs, were then dealt with by relics; and to this hour the ex votos hanging at such shrines as those of St. Genevieve at Paris, of St. Antony at Padua, of the Druid image at Chartres, of the Virgin at Einsiedeln and Lourdes, of the fountain at La Salette, are survivals of this same conception of disease and its cure.

So, too, with a multitude of sacred pools, streams, and spots of earth. In Ireland, hardly a parish has not had one such sacred centre; in England and Scotland there have been many; and as late as 1805 the eminent Dr. Milner, of the Roman Catholic Church, gave a careful and earnest account of a miraculous cure wrought at a sacred well in Flintshire. In all parts of Europe the pious resort to wells and springs continued long after the close of the Middle Ages, and has not entirely ceased to-day. It is not at all necessary to suppose intentional deception in the origin and maintenance of all fetich cures. Although two different judicial investigations of the modern miracles at La Salette have shown their origin tainted with fraud, and though the recent restoration of the Cathedral of Trondhjem has revealed the fact that the healing powers of the sacred spring which once brought such great revenues to that shrine were assisted by angelic voices spoken through a tube in the walls, not unlike the pious machinery discovered in the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, there is little doubt that the great majority of fountain and even shrine cures, such as they have been, have resulted from a natural law, and that belief in them was based on honest argument from Scripture. For the theological argument which thus stood in the way of science was simply this: if the Almighty saw fit to raise the dead man who touched the bones of Elisha, why should he not restore to life the patient who touches at Cologne the bones of the Wise Men of the East who followed the star of the Nativity? If Naaman was cured by dipping himself in the waters of the Jordan, and so many others by going down into the Pool of Siloam, why should not men still be cured by bathing in pools which men equally holy with Elisha have consecrated? If one sick man was restored by touching the garments of St. Paul, why should not another sick man be restored by touching the seamless coat of Christ at Treves, or the winding-sheet of Christ at Besancon? And out of all these inquiries came inevitably that question whose logical answer was especially injurious to the development of medical science: Why should men seek to build up scientific medicine and surgery, when relics, pilgrimages, and sacred observances, according to an overwhelming mass of concurrent testimony, have cured and are curing hosts of sick folk in all parts of Europe? [315]

[315] For sacred fountains in modern times, see Pettigrew, as above, p. 42; also Dalyell, Darker Superstitions of Scotland, pp. 82 and following; also Montalembert, Les Moines d’Occident, tome iii, p. 323, note. For those in Ireland, with many curious details, see S. C. Hall, Ireland, its Scenery and Character, London, 1841, vol. i, p. 282, and passim. For the case in Flintshire, see Authentic Documents relative to the Miraculous Cure of Winifred White, of the Town of Wolverhampton, at Holywell, Flintshire, on the 28th of June, 1805, by John Milner, D. D., Vicar Apostolic, etc., London, 1805. For sacred wells in France, see Chevart, Histoire de Chartres, vol. i, pp. 84-89, and French local histories generally. For superstitions attaching to springs in Germany, see Wuttke, Volksaberglaube, Sections 12 and 356. For one of the most exquisitely wrought works of modern fiction, showing perfectly the recent evolution of miraculous powers at a fashionable spring in France, see Gustave Droz, Autour d’une Source. The reference to the old pious machinery at Trondhjem is based upon personal observation by the present writer in August, 1893.

Still another development of the theological spirit, mixed with professional exclusiveness and mob prejudice, wrought untold injury. Even to those who had become so far emancipated from allegiance to fetich cures as to consult physicians, it was forbidden to consult those who, as a rule, were the best. From a very early period of European history the Jews had taken the lead in medicine; their share in founding the great schools of Salerno and Montpellier we have already noted, and in all parts of Europe we find them acknowledged leaders in the healing art. The Church authorities, enforcing the spirit of the time, were especially severe against these benefactors: that men who openly rejected the means of salvation, and whose souls were undeniably lost, should heal the elect seemed an insult to Providence; preaching friars denounced them from the pulpit, and the rulers in state and church, while frequently secretly consulting them, openly proscribed them.

Gregory of Tours tells us of an archdeacon who, having been partially cured of disease of the eyes by St. Martin, sought further aid from a Jewish physician, with the result that neither the saint nor the Jew could help him afterward. Popes Eugene IV, Nicholas V, and Calixtus III especially forbade Christians to employ them. The Trullanean Council in the eighth century, the Councils of Beziers and Alby in the thirteenth, the Councils of Avignon and Salamanca in the fourteenth, the Synod of Bamberg and the Bishop of Passau in the fifteenth, the Council of Avignon in the sixteenth, with many others, expressly forbade the faithful to call Jewish physicians or surgeons; such great preachers as John Geiler and John Herolt thundered from the pulpit against them and all who consulted them. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century, when the City Council of Hall, in Wurtemberg, gave some privileges to a Jewish physician "on account of his admirable experience and skill," the clergy of the city joined in a protest, declaring that "it were better to die with Christ than to be cured by a Jew doctor aided by the devil." Still, in their extremity, bishops, cardinals, kings, and even popes, insisted on calling in physicians of the hated race.[316]

[316] For the general subject of the influence of theological idea upon medicine, see Fort, History of Medical Economy during the Middle Ages, New York, 1883, chaps. xiii and xviii; also Colin de Plancy, Dictionnaire des Reliques, passim; also Rambaud, Histoire de la Civilisation francaise, Paris, 1885, vol. i, chap. xviii; also Sprengel, vol. ii, p. 345, and elsewhere; also Baas and others. For proofs that the School of Salerno was not founded by the monks, Benedictine or other, but by laymen, who left out a faculty of theology from their organization, see Haeser, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Medicin, vol. i, p. 646; also Baas. For a very strong statement that married professors, women, and Jews were admitted to professional chairs, see Baas, pp. 208 et seq.; also summary by Dr. Payne, article in the Encyc. Brit. Sprengel’s old theory that the school was founded by Benedictines seems now entirely given up; see Haeser and Bass on the subject; also Daremberg, La Medecine, p. 133. For the citation from Gregory of Tours, see his Hist. Francorum, lib. vi. For the eminence of Jewish physicians and proscription of them, see Beugnot, Les Juifs d’Occident, Paris, 1824, pp. 76-94; also Bedarride, Les Juifs en France, en Italie, et en Espagne, chaps. v, viii, x, and xiii; also Renouard, Histoire de la Medecine, Paris, 1846, tome i, p. 439; also especially Lammert, Volksmedizin, etc., in Bayern, p. 6, note. For Church decrees against them, see the Acta Conciliorum, ed. Hardouin, vol. x, pp. 1634, 1700, 1870, 1873, etc. For denunciations of them by Geiler and others, see Kotelmann, Gesundheitspflege im Mittelalter, pp. 194, 195. For a list of kings and popes who persisted in having Jewish physicians and for other curious information of the sort, see Prof. Levi of Vercelli, Cristiani ed Ebrei nel Medio Evo, pp. 200-207; and for a very valuable summary, see Lecky, History of Rationalism in Europe, vol. ii, pp. 265-271.


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Chicago: Andrew Dickson White, "VII. Theological Discouragement of Medicine.," History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. Benson, Vincent in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MSVCWYTBVBUMWU.

MLA: White, Andrew Dickson. "VII. Theological Discouragement of Medicine." History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, translted by Benson, Vincent, in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MSVCWYTBVBUMWU.

Harvard: White, AD, 'VII. Theological Discouragement of Medicine.' in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. . cited in , History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8MSVCWYTBVBUMWU.