In the mind of the man of the Middle Ages, “everything is in all things and acts on everything”. To the macrocosm – the universe, the planets of the Zodiac, the seasons, plants – responds the microcosm of the human body. A web of infinite correspondences is woven between Man and the Cosmos. Each gesture, each act in life can either provoke consequences, or be the result of an external intervention.
This belief is anchored in everyone’s mind, whether they be simple people or scholars. It explains why the three orders of Nature – vegetal, animal and mineral – are included in the elaboration of remedies, but not just in any old way. To affirm these correspondences between the body and the universe, these mirrored effects, principles which come straight from the Roman Empire and from Celtic therapeutics, are applied. They consist of sympathetic or imitative magic which reposes on the laws of resemblance.
Sexual medicine is the most profoundly marked one. Vulvas, phalli, testicules of various animals are used against sexual impotence or sterility. The theriac of Galien – viper flesh mixed with various plants, nettles, garlic, or urine – is said to date from Nero’s time. Every apothecary supposedly possesses the best recipe for it, but its base is always of viper flesh, said to act against venoms.
There is also a mediaeval vogue for health jewels. Apparently, Galien wore on “the mouth of the stomach” a stone of jasper to help his digestion, because matter, mineral substance, has the capacity to transmit by imitative magic, its intrinsic qualities. Stones and rare metals, unalterable, shining and pure, enter into the composition of medications, whose price can be imagined, but also have a talismanic power. They assure a definitive defence to the body.
In the inventories of King Rene in the XVth Century, we find “stones against epidemics” and the nobles pass around “languiers” of precious stones plunged into goblets, after supper. They are for sucking to protect against venom. Crushed or powdered, these minerals enter into the composition of health potions. Treatises describe the different stones, their origins, their signs, their correspondences with “colours and sounds” and their protective values. The most ancient of these treatises, and the most appreciated by the public, is the Lapidaire of Marbode, translated in the Middle Ages into French, Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Irish and Hebrew.
More modest equivalents for jewels, are teeth, horns, bones, of dogs, wolves or dolphins, which have an amulet value. It is recommended to attach them around the neck of little children to protect them from disease.
Drugs of vegetal origin are even more numerous. From the Orient, spices and aromatic herbs are imported at great expense. Aloes, cinnamon, cassia, senna, tamarind, camphor, croton oil wear a halo of legend – it appears that they are found in the heavenly Nile – and are used to favourise digestion. Plants native to Europe, angelica, achene, dill, aurona, betony, catnip, wart grass, milfoil, origan, plantain, vervain continue to serve in extracts, teas, balms, suppositories. Garlic remains for the use of the humble. It is “the strong spice of the little people”, the “theriac of the peasants”.
Some astonishing things are taken from animals: antlers, the heel-bone, the heart “bone”, deer’s blood appears very often in the pharmacopea. Up until the end of the XVIIIth Century, apothecaries use fecal matters or urine in the elaboration of their “copropharmacy”. Mixtures are prepared with bear fat, pearls, seashells, bezoars (mineral concretions gathered from the stomachs or the intestines of herbivores), the natural secretions taken from humans or animals, musk, earwax, women’s milk against deafness, or nail clippings.
Esoterism also holds a major place in mediaeval medicine. Devinatory arts, astrology, alchemy and magical procedures are part of prevention or cure. Their use blurs even more the limits between natural and surnatural therapies. The university stars practise these amalgams on a daily basis. Particularly as they are not supposed to be ignorant of any scientific branch of Nature and are versed in astrology. The Faculty of Medicine in Paris invokes the sideral conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which occurred on 24 March 1345, to explain the Great Epidemic of the Black Plague which broke out in Marseille in 1347.
Numerology, attested in the IXth Century in the West, is used to predict death – highly recommended for preparing Extreme Unction – which is calculated with the complex method of the “circle of Pythagorus”. Lucky and unlucky days command blood-letting and administration of medicines. This last belief, directly taken from Egyptian rites, is almost openly pagan. It is attributed to Hippocrates, even though it had travelled intact from Roman calendars to the ecclesiastical computes. The unlucky days are still called “Egyptian days” and the solar mythology of the Pharaohs, including the anniversary of the death of Osiris, can be recognized in them.