A Medieval Arab’s Account of European Medicine


More to read: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

The Eleventh and Twelfth century saw the revival of Europe, as it was brought out of its ‘dark ages.’ Kingdoms consolidated, and the incursion of ‘barbarians’ from the North and the East abated. Both the region’s economy and the population experienced a boom with the reestablishment of old trade links and reclaiming of wildlands for cultivation. It also brought it into increased contact with the Islamic World.

The contrast between Europe and the Near East, at the time, was significant. In all science and technical fields, did the ‘Franj’ – as the Arabs referred to them – lagged behind the latter. But particularly, in medicine, was the gap most pronounced. This difference was duly noted by Usamah ibn Munqidh, a Syrian Emir serving as a diplomat to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Narrating one particular, he wrote:

One day,  the Frankish governor of Munaytra (Northern Lebanon) wrote to my uncle (Sultan Shayzar), asking him of sending a physician to treat several urgent cases. Heeding the request, my uncle chose one of his best Christian doctors and sent him there. He, however, would return only a few days later. Curious as to how he treated the patients so quickly, we besieged with questions. He answered that they had brought him to a knight suffering from an abscess on his leg and a woman suffering from consumption. For the knight, he made a plaster; the swelling then opened and improved. And, for the woman, he prescribed a specific diet to steadily improve her health.

Later, a European doctor arrived and lambasted the Syrian physician for not knowing proper care. He went to the knight and asked, ‘Which do you prefer, to live with one leg or die with two?’ When the knight replied he would be willing to live with one, the European doctor instructed for another to chop off his leg with a well-sharpened ax. With two attempts, the leg of the man was cut off. However, bone marrow spurted out of the man’s leg, and he died immediately after.

The European doctor also examined the women and proclaimed that a demon was infatuated with her and had taken residence in her head. He had her head shaved. But as her condition began to only worsen with time, he declared that the woman was possessed by the Devil himself. Grasping a razor, he made a cut on her forehead in the shape of a cross and rubbed salt over it. The woman, too, died after. And so, with no further need, the Syrian physician returned home, having ‘learned much I had never known about the medicine of the Franj.’

Of course, little could anyone have realized at the time, history would charter very separate courses for the two civilizations. A century later, the Mongols would bring about the utter destruction of the Islamic political, economic and cultural heartland of Mesopotamia and Persia. The ‘cores’ of the Islamic world would then shift North and West to Anatolia and Egypt, both ruled over by much more militaristic and conservative Turks and Mamelukes, respectively.




Katherine Otte

Can’t remember who I stole my bio from or why.

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