Early Islamic Medicine

IMAGE:Albucasis blistering a patient in the hospital at Cordova, 1100, by Ernest Board, c. 1912. Wellcome Library, London.

The history of Western medicine owes much to its encounters with the medieval Muslim world, yet this debt seems destined to go unrecognized and unrepaid.

Jonathan Lyons | Lapham’s Quarterly

When the Western European army of the cross brought the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1096, the Arabs of the Near East were less impressed by the army’s religious zeal than they were appalled by its stench. The disease-ridden body of the Christian host included true believers and righteous folk but also, according to the report of the medieval chronicler Albert of Aix in his Historia Hierosolymita, “adulterers, homicides, thieves, perjurers, and robbers.” Few had any learning at all. Ignorant of even the rudiments of science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and sanitation, they knew nothing of the workings of that prince of medieval scientific devices, the astrolabe, which captured the movements of the three-dimensional universe on its bronze faceplate; as a result, they could not even date their most important religious holiday, Easter, nor accurately tell the time of day.

Celestial phenomena—shooting stars, ball lightning, an eclipse of the sun—terrified them. Their forebears had long since lost the ability to read Greek, thus breaking off intellectual relations with the learning of antiquity. Education had all but collapsed, save for a handful of cathedral schools clinging to innovations introduced three hundred years earlier under Charlemagne. The scholar-monks at the West’s leading center of mathematical studies, the cathedral school of Laon, had no grasp of the meaning or use of zero.

Among the greatest affront to Arab sensibilities was the Crusaders’ complete disregard for personal hygiene. Their most noble knights boasted of bathing no more than four times a year; their diet consisted largely of monotonous rations of gruel and whatever else they could forage en route; medical care frequently involved exorcism or the amputation of afflicted limbs. When the Black Death struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, it unleashed social chaos. With no real notion of contagion or hygiene, one-third of the population died without knowing why. The mass casualties induced a frenzy of violence, typified by the burning of Jews suspected of having induced the disease through witchcraft.

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