Friday, January 25, 2013

Among the Barbarians

Medieval Doctor "Treating" Patient

In the years after the First Crusade the Muslims of the Middle East got to know the new comers to the Middle East. The "Frankish" Christians from the West. What they found, was aside from the new conquerors military expertise, which was considerable, was that over all they didn't have a lot to admire. Not only were they from a Muslim point of view idolatrous unbelievers / infidels they were over all considered pretty uncouth.1

It is a little hard to accept that not so long ago much of Europe was considered a land of "barbarians" that was the object of much scorn by much of the world. The inhabitants of Europe were simply not considered to be at the forefront of civilized life.2

An interesting statement regarding how the "Franks" were viewed during the Crusading period is provided by the memoirs of a Muslim Emir Usama ibn Munqidh (1095-1188 C.E.). In his memoirs Usama provides many interesting tidbits concerning his relationship with the local Franks, which much of the time was fighting them but did on occasion include less violent interactions.3

The following is a section of Usama's memoirs describing the visit of Usama's Physician Thabit to the castle of Munaytira in Lebanon held by the Crusaders. Usama had sent Thabit at the request of the Warden of the castle to treat some ill people residing there.4

The visit did not go well as the following quotes, apparently from the Doctor, indicate.
They brought to me [Thabit] a knight with an abscess in his leg, and a woman troubled with fever. I applied to the knight a little cataplasm ; his abscess I opened and it took a favorable turn. As for the woman, I forbade her to eat certain foods, and I lowered her temperature. I was there when a Frankish doctor arrived, who said,  ‘This man can't cure them !' Then, addressing the knight, he asked, ‘Which do you prefer, to live with a single leg, or to die with both of your legs?' ‘I prefer,' replied the knight, ‘to live with a single leg.’ ‘Then bring’, said the doctor,  ‘a strong knight with a sharp axe.' The knight and axe were not slow in coming. I was present. The doctor stretched the leg of the patient on a block of wood, and then said to the knight, ‘Cut off his leg with the axe, detach it with a single blow.' Under my eyes, the knight gave a violent blow, but it did not cut the leg off. He gave the unfortunate man a second blow, which caused the marrow to flow from the bone, and the knight died immediately.
As for the woman, the doctor examined her and said, ‘She is a woman with a devil in her head, by which she is possessed. Shave her hair.' They did so, and she began to eat again, like her compatriots, garlic and mustard. Her fever grew worse. The doctor then said, 'The devil has gone into her head.' Seizing a razor he cut into her head in the form of a cross and excoriated the skin in the middle so deeply that the bone were uncovered. Then he rubbed her head with salt. The woman, in her turn, expired immediately. After asking them if my services were still needed, and after receiving a negative answer, I returned, having learned from their medicine matters of which I had previously been ignorant.5
The sarcasm of the last sentence is quite something. Obviously the doctor was not impressed.

Another story of Crusader medical practice as told by Usama in his memoirs is was told to him by a certain Guillaume de Bures when they were traveling together from Acre to Tiberias.
"There was with us in our country," [said Guillaume,] "a very doughty knight, who fell ill and was at the point of death. As a last resource we applied to a Christian priest of great authority and entrusted the patient to him, saying, 'Come with us to examine such-and-such a knight.' He agreed and set off with us. Our belief was that he had only to lay hands upon him to cure him. As soon as the priest saw the patient, he said, 'Bring me wax.' We brought him some, and he softened it and made [two plugs] like the joints of a finger, each of which he thrust into one of the patient's nostrils; whereupon he expired. 'He is dead,' we exclaimed. 'Yes,' replied the priest; 'he was suffering, and I plugged his nostrils so that he might die and be at peace!'"6
Another less than impressive feat of doctoring.

It is interesting to note that although the Muslims of Middle East seemed to be generally unimpressed with the culture of the Crusaders they did note positive things when they found them. Even in medicine, in which the Muslims had a distinct superiority over the Europeans at the time. Thus even Usama does tell among the horror stories some stories about the positive results of "Frankish" medicine.

Thus we get the story of a Crusader named Bernard who was injured by the kick of a horse and who wasn't getting any better, until a 'Frankish" Doctor took off all the plasters etc., and washed Bernard's wounds in vinegar. Bernard got better. and as Usama says: "...was cured and arose like the Devil".7

Another story is of a boy with  scrofula and ulcers on his neck. The local "Frankish" Doctor recommends applying olive oil, vinegar and pounded soda on the sores. This was followed by "burnt lead" mixed with grease. The boy recovered.8

Still over all the view of non-Europeans of Europeans at the time is decidedly negative and it is good to recall that things change and today's "Barbarians" may become Civilizations torchbearers in the future. It is a historical myth that the West has been always the center of civilized life on the planet. There was a time when the West and its inhabitants were the Barbarians on the periphery of the civilized world and that was not that long ago.

1. For an over all view of the Crusades that is up to date in terms of scholarship see, Tyerman, Christopher, God's War, Penguin Books, London, 2007.

2. For Muslim attitudes towards Europeans see Lewis, Bernard, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, W. W. Norton and Co., New York, 1982.

3. Browne, Edward G., Arabian Medicine, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1921, pp. 69-73, Munro, Dana C., Christian and Infidel in the Holy Land, in Munro, Dana C., Essays on the Crusades, The International Monthly, Burlington VT, 1903, pp. 1-41, at pp. 19-22.

4. Browne, p. 69.

5. This quote can be found in Munro, pp. 19-20, Haskins, Charles Homer, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, Harvard University Press, Harvard CONN, 1927, pp. 326-327, Excerpts can be found in Browne, pp. 69-70.

6. Browne, p. 70.

7. IBID, p. 71.

8. IBID, pp. 71-72.

Pierre Cloutier

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