Medieval medicine and the practice of astrology

Posted by sb661 at Aug 01, 2014 05:15 AM |
History doctoral student Chris Mitchell discusses astrology's place in medicine in medieval times
Medieval medicine and the practice of astrology


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Leicestershire MP David Tredinnick hit the headlines recently when he stated in an interview that he wanted to promote the use of astrology within healthcare. The MP for Bosworth has long been a promoter of complementary medicine, and is Chairman of the All-Party Group for Integrated Healthcare, a parliamentary group aiming to combine orthodox and complementary healthcare.

On the face of it, astrology may seem a strange bedfellow to the types of complementary medicine most of us are familiar with, such as acupuncture, homeopathy and herbalism. However, historically astrology has been part of a much more integrated view of the universe, where the heavens and Earth were seen as part of an interconnected whole. Medical doctors studying in universities were required to study astrology up until the end of the 18th century.

Medieval medicine looked very different to modern medicine, although the meticulous recording of the effects of medicinal herbs have found their way into modern medicine in some cases. For example, the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, writing in 1653, describes various uses of the bark of the willow tree, describing it as “a fine cool tree” useful for those with a fever. In modern times, we know that willow bark contains salicin, from which aspirin is derived. The astrological connection with herbs can be seen by Culpeper’s description of the willow that “The Moon owns it”, and each herb was seen as being influenced by a particular planet. In addition, signs of the zodiac were related to parts of the body in a logical sequence – the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, assigned to the head, down to the last sign, Pisces, assigned to the feet. This led to guidelines, such as avoiding bloodletting when the Moon was in a sign relating to the part of the body from where the blood was to be drawn. More sophisticated astrological techniques also related to medicine – when a patient took to their bed with an illness, an astrological chart was drawn up for that moment and analysed.

So to return to Tredinnick’s point – does astrology, and indeed alternative therapies, have any role to play in modern medicine? Modern science, of which medicine is a part, does not accept the medieval view of nature, but instead is evidence-based, requiring trials of new medicines according to strict guidelines. However, many GPs offer complementary therapies, and the NHS funds homeopathic hospitals, so Tredinnick’s rather vague suggestion that astrology could be used to help people “find out more about themselves and make their lives easier”, rather than proposing a return to blood-letting, may not be quite as controversial as the press are making out.

Chris Mitchell is a doctoral student in the School of History, University of Leicester

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