Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine
(Amberley, 2014) 304pp. $34.95
The author of this entertaining and somewhat gossipy book about medieval medicine explains her purpose for writing the book towards the end of this volume of about 250 pages of varied material. She writes: “In this book I have tried to give just a glimpse of the fascinating story of man’s attempts to alleviate the pain and suffering of his fellows, but the truth is that I find it impossible to draw any definite conclusions about the continuing process of developing medicine since its earliest origins in the magic and religious beliefs of Stone age man (252).” While the author holds out hope for progress, she shows sometimes a chronological snobbery that seems surprised that so many odd medieval medicinal practices, including the use of leeches and maggots, stands up to the rigors of contemporary scientific experimentation, which points to the fact that so much of medical history involves fads and pendulum shifts from over-exaggeration to forgetfulness of useful purposes, from the exploration of cures and palliatives from nature to outright deception and quackery, which is why progress is so elusive.
In many ways, this book is a pleasure to read, with its frequent quotation of primary sources from the Middle Ages as a way of demonstrating to the reader the odd and fascinating reflections on medicine during the period. The sheer variety of topics that the author discusses over the course of the book is impressive, as the author discusses unsanitary conditions and theories of bad air from foul untreated sewage, medicine and the Roman Catholic Church, religious views on Adam’s medical knowledge, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of disease, women as patients and doctors, medieval malpractice lawsuits, battlefield medicine, passing on ideas through writing and apprenticeship, and two chapters on the ambiguous question of progress. Much of this book will be of interest to those who are fascinated by medieval science and religion, or magical beliefs, or tall tales about dragons, and other aspects of this book, particularly its excellent chapter on battlefield medicine, will be of interest to students of medieval military history with the examination of surgery on soldiers and useful techniques for treating wounds.
That said, although the book is enjoyable to read and a worthwhile, if somewhat superficial, examination of a wide variety of topics on medieval medicine, the tone of the book is not exactly scholarly. For example, the author commonly speaks in the first person, as when she writes: “I get the feeling that, for the most part, surgeons and apothecaries were concerned to get on with the more practical side of medicine: treating the sick or injured. So what kinds of treatment and remedies were available to the medieval patient? (98)” The author does not make it plain where she gets this vague and unsubstantiated feeling from, or why this feeling is to be regarded as authoritative. The reader is left to choose whether to accept the author at her word, or to question its validity because of a lack of evidence; at any rate, such intrusive editorializing would have been better reworded to express possibilities rather than sentiments.
Additionally, the author draws inferences from medieval medical practices in ways that could be taken as deeply controversial. For example, when discussing what happened when the doctor or patient is a woman, the author opens the chapter with a quotation from a female nun who was nevertheless extremely knowledgeable about the female orgasm (126). If this were not controversial enough, the author then discusses the relationship of medieval thoughts on rape to contemporary politics, as when she states: “However, if a woman was unfortunate enough to be raped and became pregnant as a result, then it couldn’t have been rape because she must have been a willing participant, or else she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Incredibly, quite recently, a US politician declared that he wouldn’t support the issue of abortion for rape victims for precisely this reason (130).” As when the author discusses the relevance of the Hippocratic oath for contemporary cultural politics (100), the author does not shy away from areas of political and cultural concern. This is not only a book on medieval medicine, but also a book that seeks to critique those medical practices in light of contemporary thinking and practice, but is not as critical about contemporary culture in the process.
The wealth of citations and ample endnotes to this book invite the reader who wishes to read the primary documents from lawsuits, medical texts, and battle studies discussed by the author to investigate those sources and come to their own conclusions. Some of the treatments in the book are followed by doctors and people even today, while other treatments would find a person in jail for animal cruelty, such as this horrific treatment for gout: “To cure gout. Boil a red-haired dog alive in oil until it falls apart. Then add worms, hog’s marrow and herbs. Apply the mixture to the affected parts. Or take a frog when neither sun nor moon is shining. Cut off its hind legs and wrap them in deer skin. Apply the right to the right and the left to the left foot of the gouty person and without doubt he will be healed (116-117).” It is unlikely that anyone would have been cured by such horrific means, but the author includes this sort of material seemingly for its colorful nature, without a great deal of commentary or analysis on how good and bad cures were to be distinguished.
Whatever one thinks of the casual or gossipy tone of the book, the fact that the book is full of quotations and citations from medieval sources on medical history makes it a worthwhile book for readers interested in medieval history. Whether the reader is interested in historical reenactment, of which several pictures of living history in England are included, or whether the reader wishes to focus on aspects of legal or military history, including the fact that some soldiers from medieval battlefields like Towson have been found to have received notable treatments of serious battlefield injuries, this book offers a fluent and easy-to-read entrance into the complicated and demanding body of literature on medieval medicine that will likely find its way into many libraries of people interested in the history of the Middle Ages.