Ep. 2 Art & Medicine (Before 1850)

This is the transcript for Episode 2
Back to Episode

Speaker: Janelle (Host)

Hello I’m your host Janelle and today I’m talking about art and medicine, specifically medicine before 1850. In this episode I’ll cover a small history of medicine, types of medical treatments, and how medicine is represented in art! Now just to touch on the web page associated with this episode, I want to make sure you all know that you can view all of the images and resources I discuss in this episode on my website, www.boozyarthistorian.com or by clicking on the link in this episode’s description. On my website you will find all kinds of goodies, specifically web pages dedicated to each podcast episode I produce. Just click on the link to the episode you want, on the website’s homepage and you’ll find the episode’s audio, a transcript of the audio, and accompanying resources and images. Right, now that I’ve done all of the housekeeping, let’s get into the good stuff!

Before we go any further I would like to note that this particular focus is on Western art and medicine.  This is not to say, I don’t believe that Eastern art and medicine aren’t worth discussing, to be honest it’s fascinating and deserves it’s own episode.  If I had put both together this would have been a three hour episode which honestly is just a bit too much. I’m hoping to do an episode soon on Eastern art and medicine, so if you have any artworks or medical history topics you would like me to discuss feel free to send me a message through the Contact section of my website or DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian.

Now, there are three rough time periods I like to break the history of medicine into. Early Medicine, Monastic Medicine and Scholastic Medicine.  Each of these three periods are filled with fascinating scientific discoveries and I highly recommend you having a look at the Resources section of this episode’s accompanying webpage. To quickly sum up.  Early Medicine is everything before the year 1000 C.E.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, C.E. means Common Era.  It’s a bit of a more inclusive way to date history, rather than the Christian focus on A.D. (meaning After Death, which is referring to the death of Christ). If you hear me mention B.C.E. that translates to Before Common Era.  Monastic Medicine is everything from roughly 1000 C.E. to 1800(ish) C.E. Scholastic Medicine is everything from 1800(ish) C.E. to present.

When discussing the history of Western medicine it’s important to remember that they didn’t have access to technology like we do today.  People had to work with the knowledge they had, along with trial and error.  It is also important to remember, most of the world before Scholastic Medicine was driven by the supernatural.  Now when I say supernatural I mean things like religious influences, because those are in fact supernatural, and the cosmos. I would even go so far as to argue that the supernatural is still connected to medicine currently.  There are things that happen within the human body that we can’t explain with modern medicine. The supernatural quality to medicine was important historically, and even to this day, because it gives us some sort of explanation as to why our bodies do things that modern medicine can’t explain. People turned to the supernatural to give some kind of semblance of control over something that seemed unexplainable and uncontrollable. Examples include things like demonic possession, which were not seen as necessarily illnesses of the body but rather repercussions for breaking a taboo, whether it be social or religious, or magical practices (like spells).  

Magic plays an important role in medicine. We see magic in medical history so far back as Ancient Egypt.   Now, it’s important to note that for Egyptians, magic was less about using spells that would cause harm and more about creating cures for illnesses. Along with magic, trial and error was a major component in Egyptian medicine.  What is particularly interesting about the trial and error is Egyptians wrote down their results.  So anything from spells or simple non-invasive surgical procedures, such as setting broken bones, would be written down for future medicinal practitioners to use.  Two wonderful examples can be found on this episodes’ webpage.  Image 1a shows a piece of an ostracon with medical recipes on it, and Image 1b shows a tablet with a list of magical stones and their healing properties. These types of artifacts are exciting to historians since it gives us this rare glimpse into how people healed one another as well as how people wrote! Which is very exciting.

Another culture that we see writing down their medical procedures are the Ancient Greeks. What’s really fascinating about Greek texts is they were used as official or unofficial medical texts almost 1500 years after they were written! For Greek medicine, disease was believed to have a more natural rather than religious cause.  This is not to say that the supernatural didn’t play into their ideas of medicine. For example, certain gods and heroes were associated with health and disease.  The main god being Asclepius, and his two daughters Hygeia (who was goddess of hygiene and general cleanliness) and Panacea (the goddess of general health). As we know from film representations of the Ancient Greeks (for example Disney’s Hercules) that many towns in Greece had temples dedicated to different gods. Many towns in Greece are recorded as having a temple dedicated to Asclepius. In Image 2 of this episode’s webpage, you can see an example of a relief which depicts a woman who has just given birth with a woman behind her holding the newborn baby, and a large female figure in front of the seated woman. This relief was most likely commissioned by the seated woman depicted in it as a gift to Askelpios or Hygieia for allowing her to survive such a dangerous medical moment.

Fun fact: it’s from the Greek in which we get one of the most important parts of modern medicine from.  The Hippocratic Oath.  This is the oath doctors take when they graduate from medical school, where they vow to do no harm. Hippocrates was a real person! He was born around 460 B.C.E. and died around 380 B.C.E.  Hippocrates was all about reasoning and was a member of the Asclepius guild. He also went on to write the Hippocratic Corpus, which contains the main points of: disease is natural, and that one must utilize empiricism and prognostics when treating patients. More importantly, the Hippocratic Corpus acted as a practical guidebook which listed techniques for medical practitioners to use, as well as created an ethical and professional framework in the medical world. The most important text to stem from this was De materia medica.  

De materia medica was a five volume encyclopedia that outlined the medicinal uses for various herbs and natural elements. It was created by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician to the Roman Army around 50 C.E. De materia medica is still to this day considered one of the longest lasting medical texts ever! It was translated into many different languages and permeated the globe.  In Image 3 you can see a version in Arabic. On this particular page there is a little picture showing two men preparing a medicine from honey.  The recipe is written below the image, so it’s almost like a sort of recipe book if you will.   As an art historian what I find particularly fascinating about this artifact is that the two men are in a building that is believed to be a depiction of a pharmacy.  In the region of Seljuq (which today is the region we know as Turkey, specifically the region around Istanbul), it was very common for hospitals to have pharmacies attached to them.  So it’s quite fun to see a drawing representing this building and helps give us an idea of what these pharmacies would have looked like! We also see another example of this in Image 4 where we see these wonderful oxen grazing, and inscribed on the page are the medicinal uses for oxen.

With that being said I would like to turn to our next time period which is Monastic Medicine.  A major component of Monastic Medicine was humors.  Humors made up the majority of all medicinal diagnoses and treatments. Now, when I say humors I don’t mean something funny.  What I mean is four components of the natural world that people believed every living thing was comprised of.  You can see a diagram I created in Image 5 which helps visualize the various parts of each humor.

The four humors included: Blood, Phlegm, Black Bile, and Yellow Bile.  Now each of these humors coordinated with specific seasons, symptoms, and even personality traits! Blood was associated with Spring.  It was believed to be produced by the liver, and was an indicator of outgoing personality traits. For example, people who had the right amount of Blood in their humors were considered friendly, they joked and laughed frequently, and their skin had a slightly rosy tint to it.  If they had too much Blood then they could be considered a sort of foolish, or have a bright red appearance. Yellow Bile was associated with Summer. It was believed not to be a great humor to have since most of the coordinating traits aren’t very kind.  For example someone with Yellow Bile would have been bitter, short tempered, and daring.  They also had a greenish or yellow tinted skin color. Black Bile was associated with Autumn.  It was believed to be an indicator of depression, secreted by the spleen.  People who had Black Bile in their humor composition were considered lazy, fearful, and sickly.  Black Bile was also associated with people who had black hair and/or black eyes. Fun fact: cancer was considered Black Bile! So in some historical texts you’ll see things written about the removal of Black Bile, which would have meant a cancerous growth. Last but not least, we have Phlegm which was associated with Winter.  It was also considered an indicator of reserved behavior.  Those who had too much Phlegm in their systems would have been low spirited, forgetful, and have white hair.  

What I find incredibly fascinating is people believed that your birth date would dictate your four humor make-up and therefore your personality and physical build. Now we have to remember during this time period that astrology and astronomy are the same thing.  So your personality and genetic makeup being dictated by where the planets were in accordance to the stars was not outlandish for people to believe (and some people to this day still do believe in these types of things). We can see a wonderful example of this in Image 6 which is a page from Fasciculo di medicina, which shows a male figure with all of the constellations covering the coordinating parts of the human body that they rule. This particular book is a compilation of medical knowledge, and incorporates not only Medieval knowledge but also Renaissance knowledge.What I love about this particular image is we see the influence Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna had on the illustrator (most likely Johannes de Ketham).  There are some additional illustrations in the text that are quite interesting to look at as well, so I highly recommend clicking on the link associated with Image 6 to see them all.

But, I digress.  Going back to the idea of the cosmos, and everything within them, is made up of these four humors also helped people diagnose and treat illnesses. For example, if you went out on a cold winter day and you caught the common cold, then it could be remedied by balancing out your other three humors appropriately.  You could promote an increase in Yellow Bile by sitting by a fire, to counter the excess Phlegm and Black Bile in your system. One of the most common solutions to balancing one’s humors was bloodletting.  For example, if one was suffering a bad bout of vertigo they could apply leeches behind their ears to help with the symptoms. Bloodletting was also used as a preventative measure to make sure the humors would stay balanced. As dangerous bloodletting was, I cannot stress enough how important it was to the history of modern medicine.  Without bloodletting, medical practitioners would have never figured out things like blood transfusions!

I also want to quickly pause and remind everyone that these sorts of medical practices may seem archaic, but at the time they were considered the standard.  Germ theory was not a thing until the 1850s, so the supernatural and magic filled in these sort of blanks of what people couldn’t explain in medicine. Now the next art object I wanted to talk about is proof of people using magic as a sort of homemade medicine. Not homeopathic but also not truly medicine.  Anyone who knows me, will know how much I adore gilt coconuts so this is one of my favorite objects in this episode. Image 7 is a particularly fetching example of a gilt coconut, and I had the pleasure of seeing it at TEFAF Maastricht a few years ago.  What makes this a magical object is not the gilt additions or the carvings on the coconut, but rather the coconut itself.  During the Renaissance in Europe, coconuts were incredibly exotic and expensive objects.  So to show off one’s wealth, people would have these intricate gilt mounts added to the coconut so they could either display it or drink from it. Now, because coconuts were so exotic there was a level of mysticism around them, and people thought drinking from a coconut could offer healing properties.  Especially when it came to poisoned beverages.  It was believed that if one put a poisoned drink into a coconut cup, the coconut would neutralize the poison, and make it safe to drink again. This is obviously not true, but we see this belief permeate all over Europe for quite a while.

Another object that was believed to have magical medicinal properties were bezoars.  Yes, exactly like the thing we hear about in the Harry Potter novels. Much like using coconuts to neutralize any illnesses, one could scrape off a bit of the gray part we see in Image 8, and add it to a beverage or food or just pop it into your mouth, which I can’t imagine would have tasted very good, and it would have cured a variety of stomach or poison based illnesses.   We also see with the covered jar in Image 9, a different sort of example of how eating exotic things would affect the body.  This particular type of porcelain was made in Mexico and was very expensive to ship to Europe.  Of course Europeans loved it because it was luxurious but also because they would eat it! Europeans believed that by eating the exotic porcelain they would absorb the healing qualities of it and that it would help keep their skin white and pale. At this time in Europe it was very en vogue to have ghostly white skin, so women did everything they could to achieve this look. Now not everyone was eating this porcelain, most people would drink from it.  They believed it would give them the same qualities as eating the porcelain itself. It was particularly popular in Spain to drink from such vessels, and we can even see a wonderful example of this in Image 10, in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas.  In it we see the Infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by her maids of honor (which are sort of like ladies in waiting if you will) and one of them is actually serving her a drink out of a Mexican ceramic vessel!  

With that being said I’ve been talking about the wealthy elites of Europe and their medicine, or what they believed were medicine, I can’t say that taking bezoars or drinking from a coconut was actually beneficial to them medical wise but either way I would be remiss not to mention the rest of the people in Europe and how they accessed medicine. Which actually leads me back to the term Monastic Medicine.  During this time period there aren’t hospitals like what we have today.  It was mainly religious institutions that acted as places where one could access medical assistance. The downside of that is many of the cures these religious institutions could offer were spiritual rather than physical. Many of these religious monasteries or convents believed medicine was an accessory to their sacred religious mission.   They believed that illness was a symptom of a soul being impure.  So any cure they prescribed wouldn’t be to necessarily make you feel better but rather to prepare your soul should you die.  Such cures included things like praying, penitence, and the calling upon the assistance of saints.  I think it’s also important to note that monks and nuns were forbidden to practice medicine for “temporal gain” aka make a profit off of it. Of course we know that praying and repenting weren’t actually very helpful and one very important woman felt the exact same way.

That woman being Hildegard von Bingen, depicted in Image 11. Some of you may know her from Outlander Season 2.  The show of course got the time period horribly wrong, they were off by about 600 years, but I appreciate that they tried to highlight an important woman in medical history. Hildegard von Bingen believed that one must keep both the mind and body strong against the devil.  In her medicinal work she kept religion and medicine separate.  Well, as much as possible during this time period and for someone who operated within a convent. There were also others who began to work with corpses to better understand how the human body truly worked.  Of course they had to work in the shadows since it was illegal to dissect a human body in Europe up until roughly the 15th century. The reason for this was, many religious entities and religions actually believed that one day we would need our bodies for the afterlife and by desecrating them it would cause the soul to be without a body come Judgment Day.  But when it does become less taboo to dissect bodies we start to see fascinating illustrations of muscles, bones, and circulatory systems. As we can see in Images 12a, b, and c.  Two of these are by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most well known figures of Renaissance Europe.  It’s quite fascinating to see how he drew out the human figure and the details in the bone structures.  

And from here we start to see a general increase in tools that help doctors and the scientific community better understand medicine all the way up to the 1850s where there was a huge renaissance, if you will, of medical practices and policies.  Most of it is similar to what I’ve just discussed, but if you are interested you can join my “Beer Only” membership (which is just $3/mo) and have access to a mini episode I put together on the little bits I couldn’t get to today. I also recommend checking out the Resources section of this episode’s webpage, which of course is free to anyone.  And If there’s anything I want you all to walk away with from this episode, it’s that medicine has a long history and the understanding of the human body has been a very lengthy process.

With that being said, I hope you all found this episode incredibly helpful in understanding a brief history of medicine through art! Should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you are welcome to DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian. You’ll also find fun drink recipes on my TikTok account, and you can find fun art history facts on my more “sober” account, @thecuriousarthistorian.  If you liked this episode or any of my work, please consider donating so I can keep all of  my episodes ad free! You can find me on Buy Me a Coffee under Boozy Art Historian. You can also keep up to date on all of my upcoming episodes and other news by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.  No spam, just one email at the beginning of each month highlighting upcoming episodes and news.  You can subscribe through the link in my Instagram profile or through my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Thanks for listening in and see you next time on The Boozy Art Historian!

You're subscribed!
Oops! Something went wrong, try again.