In the middle ages the Empirics were the largest group of health care providers in Europe.
Empirics, who were called so by the rather prejudiced university-trained doctors of the time, were the healers who relied on their experience in providing cures (what worked and what didn't seem to), rather than classical medical training. They were more commonly called healers, wise men, or wise women who often relied heavily on traditional home remedies, prayers, and incantations.
There's very little evidence as to how these healers were trained (most were illiterate), but it is generally assumed they either trained under someone medically trained or learned from things they picked up along the way.
There are very few references to Empirics, except perhaps a smattering of court records where either their skills were not up to par or they were so up to par that jealous medical doctors would fine or jail them for not having a license to practice. To me, this sounds similar to modern day practices (the divide between the medical and holistic communities, as well as the inability for any health practitioner to say they can 'cure' anything) and is probably what brought on witch hunts, in my opinion.
Aside from the Empirics, there were other practitioners in the middle ages, such as monks and nuns who studied in libraries and tended to patients, daughters of physicians or surgeons who were trained by a parent (although daughters were banned from medical practice until the 14th century) and were only able to offer services privately, never publicly, and noble women who were basically in the same category as the daughters, but who were expected to take care of their families, close relatives and friends. Then, there were also the apothecaries.
While Empirics gathered herbs for treatments, apothecaries were those who provided medical substances for doctors, such as pearls, gold, spices, and sugar. Why sugar? Sugar was used in making syrups and sugar pills for the wealthy. The apothecary didn't just buy and sell, he created pastes, salves, tonics, and pills as per the doctor's instructions. Some of these were available over the counter, while others only by prescription. Most apothecaries learned their trade through an apprenticeship and were often subject to periodic inspection, as some were found to be diagnosing and remedying ailments entirely on their own, which, of course, was not allowed. This would be like someone in today's world working for a pharmacy and selling drugs out of the back door.
Diagnostic and remedy techniques were often related to blood and urine according to the smell, color, or even taste. Diet was an extremely important part of 'medicine' in the middle-ages and foods were prescribed according to the 4 humours. Often, bleeding and cautery were used. Wine was used to clean wounds and then bandages applied. Herbs that were in supply were used, as well as some more bizarre substances like bird or pig ‘poop’. Surgery was not used, unless there was no other course, whether there was anesthetic or not and , more often than not, these were performed by barbers and executioners who knew something of anatomy. Mental illness was considered caused by a physical condition or by supernatural forces and were 'cured' through, again, the 4 humors. other remedies already described in this blog, or by exorcism.
Midwives (nurses), which were to work only under the supervision of a physician. They were often given the responsibility of handling gynecological and obstetric care of other women and to perform cesarean births, as the physician found this kind of work distasteful. As a result, many poorer women had only the help of the midwives (nurses), while the more noble had both doctor and nurse.
And, last, but not least, monks and nuns carried out the responsibilty of doctoring and nursing in monasteries.
If you are interested, I offer a glimpse at what it was like to be a medieval practitioner on Medieval Health Practices Pinterest board.
Artwork: Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt
Mari J. Dionne
AADP Certified Holistic Health Practitioner of Natural Healing
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