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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On an Early Resistance to Eastern Medicine

Marco Schmidt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Struck down by the flu, I have spent much of the last few days in bed, curled in a foetal position, trying my best to fade away like the Cheshire cat and leave behind just a large frown. Illness often strikes suddenly and in an instant overturns our lives. Western medication provides considerable relief for some illnesses but there is still a long way to go in developing drugs and treatments capable of resolving even the most common of complaints. There is generally a more open attitude today towards alternative medicine, but conventional medicine is still reluctant to incorporate many of the varied and strange treatments applied in the Far East.

Doubts about Eastern medical knowledge (in this case, that of the Near East and the Middle East), existed in the Middle Ages. Based on classical sources, Eastern medicine was highly developed for its time, whereas the state of medical knowledge and its application in Europe lagged far behind. The Muslim countries and Byzantium preserved knowledge of ancient Greek medicine, much of which had been long forgotten in the West. Translated from the Arabic or Greek, this knowledge slowly began to disseminate into the West. In the Latin East the Franks had the benefit of direct contact with Arab and Jewish physicians, but we occasionally encounter among the settlers evidence of opposition to Eastern treatments. For example, the Frankish chronicler, William of Tyre criticised the reliance by Baldwin III and others on Eastern physicians:

…our Eastern princes, through the influence of their women, scorn the medicines and practice of our Latin physicians and believe only in the Jews, Samaritans, Syrians and Saracens. Most recklessly they put themselves under the care of such practitioners and trust their lives to people who are ignorant of the science of medicine.*

Baldwin had been in the habit of taking medication to aid the evacuation of his bowels, and William seems to have regarded his sudden death after such a treatment in the winter of 1163 as due to the poor advice of women and the treatment applied by non-Frankish physicians. He claimed that the medication which Balak, the physician of the count of Tripoli, provided the king, was in fact poison, and he noted that when it was later tested on a dog, the animal died within a few days. The Chronicle of Amadi claimed that it was the women who had prepared the fatal medicine.**

In an attempt to prevent or limit the reliance of Franks in the Latin East on Eastern doctors and their methods, a decree was issued in Jaffa in 1251, and a similar one in Cyprus, prohibiting the treatment of Christians by Muslim or Jewish doctors,*** but these were largely ineffectual and a preference remained among many of the Franks for Eastern medical care. It is even possible that Muslim and Jewish doctors were employed in the hospital of the Order of St John in Jerusalem in spite of a prohibition on the residence of non-Christians in the Holy City; evidence of the high regard in which they were held. In acquiring licenses, Arab and Frankish doctors were tested before the local bishop on exactly the same terms. Behind establishments like the hospital in Jerusalem and its sister institution in Acre there must have been a body of knowledge derived from the writings of scholars like Ibn Butlan, an eleventh century Syrian Christian physician, author of a treatise on health known in its late thirteenth century Latin translation as Tacuinam sanitas, and the regimens of the Muslim physician and surgeon Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) and the Jewish physician, philosopher and astronomer, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides). Their works would have been available to the Franks in the East long before the first translations of such works arrived in France at the very end of the thirteenth century.

*William of Tyre, History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, vol. 2, E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey (trans.), New York, 1943, p. 292-93, 18.34. **N. Coureas and P. Edbury (trans.), The Chronicle of Amadi, Nicosia, 2015, p. 36, 66. ***J. Prawer, The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, 1988, p. 108, n. 49.

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