Medicine through time

Medicine through time - content, activities and blog for teachers and learners of medicine through time

Home - Blog - Medicine by period - Medicine by theme - Timelines - Revision Activities - Teachers Resources - Links - Dummies Guide to Medicine - Audio-Visual Materials - Interactive Scheme of Work - Recommended Books

Site Search




Ideas about the cause of disease: the importance of the supernatural and the search for natural explanation of illness.

Whilst the ideas of Hippocrates and Galen were still very important in the Middle Ages they were not the only way in which people would think about disease or explain the cause of illnesses.

Throughout time people had looked for a range of explanations about the cause of disease. Some of these explanatins will be looked at in more detail in a study of the Black Death.

Launch in external player

Title: When did science change ordinary medicine? (pt 1/2)

Duration: 03:34

Description: Featuring pictures of medicines, the clip explains the little impact science had on medicine before the 1800s. Medicine was dominated by herbs, used to make "simples" (one herb) or more complex potions. The potions were based on experience and on the theory of signatures (if it looks like a lung it will treat the lung), and on ideas of magic or starsigns. Apothecaries became the sellers of these potions from the 14th Century, and their variety of potions expanded in the 16th century as trade grew around the world.

External link to BBC Class Clips.

This video shows some of the types of natural cures that were being used at the time.








What are Supernatural Causes?

Astrology and Astronomy. The movement of the planets was often thought to have a bearing on the way that the world worked and the cause of the spread of diseases such as Plagues.

God was often thought to be the cause of diseases. In a world in which godliness was off the utmost importance a lot of things - like unexplainable illnesses - were considered to be a punishment from god. Where this was the case methods of prevention and cure would be based upon the premise of wanting to please god or atone for ones sins.

Why did people believe in these kinds of supernatural causes?

We live in a word in which most things can be explained by scientists. This is a fairly recent development. In the Middle Ages they were not aware that germs caused disease. Nor were they aware of the way in which blood circulated, or of the way in which different kinds of diseases were transmitted. Because they did not have this knowledge and because germs are invisible to the naked eye, they could not see or understand a logical cause of the disease. So they looked for possible explanations. The will of god, the movement of the planets and other supernatural beliefs are all logical possible explanations given the knowledge that had been acquired to this point in time.

What are natural explanations of illness?

These are what I term 'common sense' explanations for illness. In the Middle Ages people observed that there was more illness in places where there were lots of bad smells or dirty water. The bad smells can therefore, logically, be blamed for the illness. At the time the bad smells were called Miasma. Other examples can be linked to the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. For example, someone who has hot flushes and a fever needs to be cooled down or bled to rebalance the liquids (humors) within the body. Doctors at this time could also make use of some tests. They used urine charts to analyse what may be wrong with a patient, for example.






Latest blog and forum posts

On the medicine blog:


Medicine through time   


Want more detailed updates?





GCSE History Resource Website - Crime and Punishment Through Time Site - Schools History Resources for all Key Stages