Medical Professionalization in Medieval Europe, 1300s

On November 2, 1322, Madame Felicie was convicted of violating an ordinance that prohibited unlicensed healers from visiting, prescribing medications, or performing other duties for a patient, except under the guidance of a university-trained and licensed physician. The conviction was a major victory for the Paris Medical Faculty, a principal architect of the new medical pecking order, which had a pyramid-like shape. At the pinnacle was a relatively small coterie of the university-trained physicians; they practiced what we would call internal medicine. Beneath them were the general surgeons, who usually lacked academic training, although that was changing. By the early fourteenth century surgery was beginning to find a place in the medical schools. A surgeon could treat wounds, sores, abscesses, fractures, and other disorders of the limbs and skin. Beneath the general surgeon “was the barber surgeon, a kind of paramedic, who could perform minor operations, including bleeding, cupping, and applying leeches, as well as cutting hair and pulling teeth; next came the apothecary and the empiric, who usually specialized in a single condition, like hernias or cataracts. At the base of the pyramid were thousands of unlicensed healers like Madame Felicie.

To reflect their new eminence, in the decades prior to the plague, physicians began to adopt a more professional—that is, authoritative—demeanor and code of behavior. A cardinal “don’t” in the new medical etiquette was: don’t jeopardize your professional dignity by visiting patients to solicit business. “Your visit means you are putting yourself in the patient’s hands,” warned William of Saliceto, “and that is just the opposite of what you want to do, which is getting him to express a commitment to you.” A cardinal “do” in the new etiquette was to conduct a comprehensive physical exam on a first visit; the exam should include not just urinalysis, but a detailed medical history and an analysis of the patient’s breath odor, skin color, muscle tone, saliva, sweat, phlegm, and stool. Some physicians also cast a patient’s horoscope on the first visit. Another cardinal “don’t” in the new etiquette was to admit to diagnostic uncertainty. Even when in doubt, said Arnauld of Villanova, a physician should look and act authoritative and confident. For the uncertain physician, Arnauld recommended prescribing a medicine, any medicine, “that may do some good but you know can do no harm.” Another strategy was to “tell the patient and his family that [you are] prescribing this or that drug to cause this or that condition in the patient so that [they] will always be looking for something new to happen.” A third “don’t” in the new etiquette was volubility. Reticence conveyed authority, especially when combined with a grave manner; besides, said one savant, the physician who discusses his medical reasoning with the patient and his family risks letting them think that they know as much as he does, and that may tempt them to dispense with his services.

What made the university-trained physician such an impressive figure to laymen, however, was not only his authoritative bedside manner but his mastery of the arcanae of the New Galenism. Its signature principle was the theory of the four humors. For the ancient Greeks, whose thinking shaped so much medieval medicine, the number four was, like the atom, a universal building block. Everything, the Greeks believed, was made out of four of something. In the case of the physical world, the four elements were earth, wind, water, and fire; in the case of the human body, the four humors were blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. An important element in the humoral theory were the four qualities of all matter: hot and cold, wet and dry. Thus, blood was said to be hot and moist; black bile, cold and dry; yellow bile, hot and dry; and phlegm, cold and wet.

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 167-169

Leave a comment

Filed under disease, education, Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.