History Coursework Assessment B:
In considering the Process of Change in the Development of Ideas and Practices in Medical Surgery over the whole period c.1000-1650 how far can the Black Death be considered a Turning Point?
Although the Black Death was one of the biggest catastrophes known in Europe, its short term influence was of little consequence. Despite there being many different ideas, practices and surgical procedures present during and after the Black Death, in the long term there was minute progression. In the period c.1000 – 1650 many distinctive turning points occurred in terms of individual achievements, however several relied on recent improvements in such things as technology, and consequently were not turning points unto themselves. Galen’s Four Humours still led the majority of medical ideas during the Black Death, which immediately suggests little change. However, individuals such as Geoffrey de Meaux were expanding this theory further through the use of subjects such as Astrology and Alchemy, both of which concentrated slightly on medical advancement. Medicines were concocted on a basis of “temperate” and “intemperate” cures focusing on balancing the Four Humours. Alchemy relied on there being four elements in order to attempt their transformational experiments, hence the clichéd idea of them turning base metal into gold. De Meaux talks of curing phlegm profusion, “Turbith naturally expels phlegm...mixed with ginger the mixture expels phlegm...since ginger is not... a repellent, it has taken on the nature of turbith” demonstrating this transformational quality of objects. In terms of “cause and cure” this demonstrates careful observation and documentation. Progression is seen here as some begin to write their findings in Latin, this would circulate through to some of the wealthier people, but was not widely accessible as each copy was hand-written and not in plain English. Whilst alchemy drew knowledge from the natural medicines in plants, Hippocrates remarked that the “arts of Medicine and Astrology balance each other” therefore both had to be studied in order to be able to administer treatment. Astrologers studied stars and “heavenly powers” which they believed influenced a person’s well-being. Friar Roger Bacon remarked on the phenomenon of twins; “every point on the Earth is at the apex of a pyramid... of various heavenly powers; and this explains why you get... twins who differ in character and behaviour.” Although not a correct diagnosis by modern standards, Bacon helps disperse the myth that Medieval Britain was completely ignorant because of the mathematical precision that would have to have been applied to that theory. In fact, during the Black Death, doctors nearly observed and discovered contagion in the form of Miasma (bad air). This was established due to the disgusting smells which would be emitted from a plague victims’ sores, the link between was the two was logical as someone who came close enough to smell the sores probably came within reach of the contagious bacterium Y. Pestis. Despite all of these ideas seeming advanced, this may be simply because of modern preconceived ideas about the ignorance of the Middle Ages increasing perceived achievements, in fact, miasma was an idea that prompted Roman baths and was simply a surviving influence of the fall of the Roman Empire. Consequently, the turning point in medical ideas came from the disproving of the ancient miasma theory. Although the documented discovery of germs and their purpose isn’t published until 1864 when Louie Pasteur pioneered his “Germ Theory”, significant steps were taken towards it in the 17th Century. Spectacles were used just after the end of the Black Death, however the event itself had no impact on the following invention. Claudius Ptolemy originally used curved glass lenses for magnifying over a millennia before hand, but the fall of the Roman Empire had left his knowledge obsolete as far as Europe was concerned....
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