Medicine and pharmacy in the Visigoth era

* The author is part of the community of readers of La Vanguardia.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 November 2023 Saturday 15:27
8 Reads
Medicine and pharmacy in the Visigoth era

* The author is part of the community of readers of La Vanguardia

The Goths were a people established in Scandinavia three centuries BC. C., they conquered several countries and founded kingdoms in Hispania-Visigoths- (from the 5th century to the beginning of the 8th century) and Italy (Ostrogoths). They were destroyers of Rome. They established their capitals of the empire in Toledo, Toulouse and Narbonne.

Their culture was agricultural and livestock. They practiced Arianism that coexisted with Catholicism and Judaism. They built many churches. They contributed words like soap, room, guard, war, shelter, gando, tapa or ropa.

The Visigothic culture can be considered as a mixture of the valuable contribution of the Jews with the Byzantine remains of the southeast and the touches of Germanism imposed by the Gothic monarchy, all of it governed and dominated by the superior Greco-Latin knowledge.

They were expelled from Spain by the Umayyad caliphate and the Berber general Tariq Ibn Ziyad.

Saint Isidore wrote: "Complete knowledge of the liberal arts is essential for the doctor who loves his profession: grammar and rhetoric to understand the writings and gallantly defend his theories; dialectics to thoroughly understand the problems derived from the disease. According to Galenic medicine, the periods of initiation, process and crisis of ailments had to be taken into account, for which nothing is more useful than arithmetic; geometry had to be used in the calculation of heights and its influence on the quality of climates. Astronomy and music are also useful in medicine. That is why medicine can be called a second philosophy. Between the two they cover a complete man, because if one deals with the soul, the other deals with the body."

It was during this time that Saint Isidore of Seville wrote his famous Etymologies, which became the most read work of the European Early Middle Ages. It is a compilation of all Greco-Latin knowledge.

Isidore was bishop of Hispalis, present-day Seville, from the year 599 to 636, the latter date of his death. An illustrious writer on religious matters, upon his death he left an extensive literary production that made him the most influential author of the European Christian Middle Ages.

Regarding its structure, Isidoro initially started from the classical disciplines of learning, the Trivium and the Quadrivium, which included subjects such as grammar, arithmetic or astronomy. Later it expanded on knowledge, in many other books, in different disciplines, including medicine, and other diverse aspects such as history, religion, geography or natural sciences.

More precisely, Isidore deals with the care of the sick and the means of healing in chapter IX of his book On Medicine included in the great encyclopedic work.

He points out three methods for curing the sick, returning with them to achieve the proper balance:

The vision of illness and healing in Isidore of Seville is eminently Hippocratic. He talks about the four humors, blood, gall or black bile, melancholy or yellow bile and phlegm.

In this interpretation, the combination of these four humors can occur through balance, which meant health, or through the lack of moderation that would bring illness.

As regards drugs, Saint Isidore devotes some attention to the antidotes, the hiera, the artery, the cathartic or purgative, the theriac or antidote for snake venom, the catapocia or pill that was taken in small doses, the diamoron or blackberry juice, diacodion or poppy juice, diaspermaton that was formed by seeds, electuary that was easily taken, the troche or pill that was shaped like a slice, the eye drops that were used for the eyes, the epitheme that preceded other remedies, the poultice because it was a remedy alone, the plaster because it was placed on the skin, or the malagma because it was macerated without the need for fire.

It was subordinated to monastic or ecclesiastical practice. The most remote antecedents of this type of medicine are in the Benedictine monasteries, when Benedict of Nursia tried to reorganize the religious orders, channeling them into activities that were useful to humanity, and eliminate the ascetic excesses of the majority of monks.

Saint Benedict not only required manual work, but also sought to direct them towards medicine, considering the healing of the body as a complement to that of the soul and a very important work of charity.

The Spanish monks had their own rules like those of San Fructuoso and San Leander, the latter came to consider the use of waking hours in prayer, study and work as perfection.

Study and work mixed with charitable emulation make a large part of the Spanish monks doctors, and we even know of the official existence of the so-called Ecclesiae Doctors, who not only attended to the clerics, but also traveled through towns and fields treating the sick in their own homes until they were transferred to the xenodochion (hospital) to complete their healing.

Visigothic doctors considered the preparation of medicines as much as their own as the diagnosis itself. In every xenodochion there was a pharmacy and in the episcopal palace of Seville itself there was one of exceptional renown.

In the Visigothic era, pharmacy and medicine were not separate professions, but united by the art of healing and exercised by the same person. A Visigothic unguentary from the 6th century has been found in Rupelo, currently in the Archaeological Museum of Burgos.

The Visigothic pharmacopoeia had natural remedies (ointments and ointments) and others with a supernatural mixture, such as the ointment that was prepared for Christians on the day of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, capable of solving all health problems during the year.

The supernatural remedies allowed were prayer, invocation to certain healing saints and the Pythagorean influence of numbers ("Medicine had to return to the human body the -numeral- harmony lost with the disease").

Hygiene and surgery were developed. Daily bathing was frequent. Phlebotomies and ophthalmology and obstetrics operations were performed.

Another remedy was dietetics "preparing delicate and clean foods until, with the help of God, the patient recovers his primitive health."

At this time pseudomedicine existed, and Saint Isidore classifies those who practiced it as follows:

San Isidoro also describes two more classes:

Saint Isidore wrote about the attributes of the doctor and went so far as to recommend to palace officials and other nobles that they should be instructed in athletics, rhetoric, law and medicine, combined with a deep knowledge of religion: "In this way a young man will be able to reach to exercise a profitable empire, because then the republic will prosper when philosophers rule and emperors philosophize.