Tag Archives: medicine

C S Lewis’s quasi-medieval ministry of mercy – part II


C.s.lewis3 (1)Here is the rest of the conclusion of the “compassionate ministry” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (the first part is here). Here we see more of how Lewis applied the classic medieval virtue of mercy in his own life, as well as how he accused modern materialists of forgetting that we cannot solve all of our problems by application of better and better techniques.

More concretely, Lewis was also lavish in his almsgiving. He said this on giving: “Giving to the poor is an essential part of Christian morality. I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, and amusement, is up to the standard common of those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. . . . For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear – fear of insecurity. This must often be recognized as a temptation.”[1]

Barfield, who was Lewis’s trustee as well as his friend, observed how Lewis followed this principle in his own life. “He gave two-thirds of his income away altogether and would have bound himself to give the whole of it away if I had let him. . . . There were substantial donations to charitable institutions, but what he really liked was to find someone through a personal connection or hearsay whose wants might be alleviated. He was always grateful to me for suggesting any lame dog whom my profession [as a lawyer] had brought to my notice.” (14) Nor did he worry about wasting his money on undeserving types. Instead, he reflected, “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.” Continue reading

Monks, illness, demons, and sin


Monastic hospitalFitting right into the modern Monty Python stereotype of medieval people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious is the assumption that especially the monks of the Middle Ages sought only supernatural explanations for things. Understanding that up to the 12th century, healthcare took place almost exclusively in the monasteries, we jump to the logical conclusion: such care couldn’t possibly have attended to the physical causes of illness. Didn’t those monks just believe that illness was caused either by demons or by the sins of the sick person? There’s a germ of truth here (pun intended), but the reality was quite different. That’s the subject of the next section of the hospitals chapter in my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Monastic phase

The distinctly monastic flavor of healthcare during the Middle Ages – even when it was provided by lay orders like the Hospitallers – deserves a bit more probing. From the beginning, monasteries in the West took Benedict’s cue and made caring not only for ill monks but also for needy travelers one of their primary tasks. The “stranger” was always an object of monastic charity. This “rather broad category,” says medical historian Gunter Risse, included “jobless wanderers or drifters as well as errant knights, devout pilgrims, traveling scholars, and merchants. . . .”[1] Monastic care for the stranger and the ill was formalized in the 800s during Charlemagne’s reforms, as assemblies of abbots (leaders of monasteries) gathered to reform and standardize that aspect of monastic life. At that time many of the scattered church-sponsored hostels (xenodocheia) across the Holy Roman Empire were given “regula”—quasi-monastic rules, and “monasteries . . . assumed the greater role in dispensing welfare.”

Organized, ubiquitous, stable, pious: the monasteries of the West became sites of care and of medical learning. “Benedict’s original rule ordered that ‘for these sick brethren let there be assigned a special room and an attendant who is God-fearing, diligent, and solicitous.’ This monk or nun attending the sick—the infirmarius was usually selected because of personality and practical healing skills. The latter were acquired informally through experience, as well as through consultation of texts, medical manuscripts, and herbals available in the monastery’s library or elsewhere. . . . The infirmarius usually talked with patients and asked questions, checked on the food, compounded medicinal herbs, and comforted those in need. . . .”[2]

“A rudimentary practice of surgery (‘touching and cutting’) at the monastic infirmary was usually linked to the management of trauma, including lacerations, dislocations, and fractures. Although these were daily occurrences, the infirmarius may not have always been comfortable practicing surgery on his brothers, for it was always a source of considerable pain, bleeding, and infection. Complicated wounds or injuries may have forced some monks to request the services of more experienced local bonesetters or even barber surgeons. . . .”[3] Risse notes other popular healing practices of the Middle Ages that were integrated into the monastic medical routine, including herbology, bathing (not otherwise common!), preventive bloodletting, and diagnostic examination of pulse, urine, stool, and blood.

The mention of some of these “backward” medieval medical practices may raise another stereotype many have in their heads about the Middle Ages. Just as some still believe the fabrication that medieval people believed in a flat earth, some assume that medievals did not know, and were not interested in, the physical causes of illness. Instead, the story goes, they assumed all illness came from devilish or demonic sources, or, a variant, from some hidden sin in the sick person. Continue reading

C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body


Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1] Continue reading

What the medieval birth of science tells us about medieval attitudes toward creation


Celestial SpheresFinishing up the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I am looking by turns at medieval science and the world of medieval arts, to see what they reveal about that era’s attitudes toward the natural world. Here is the bit on science. Next, the bit on the arts.

Religion and science: the Aristotelian impact on scholastic theology

Despite Gregory’s much more physical approach, the underlying platonic suspicion of the bodily did continue to hamper a fully world-affirming spirituality and theology. That would await the time of Anselm and Francis, and the flourishing of some seeds planted by Augustine – seeds of trust in the human gift of reason (as we saw in the “Passion for theology” chapter).

As we have seen in the theology chapter, what happened in the 12th and 13th centuries was that a recovery of Aristotelian science helped bring the powerful and useful discourse of science to bear in the deliberations of theology, both revolutionizing theology and laying the groundwork for the scientific revolution of the 16th- 18th centuries. Continue reading

The Hospitals Issue of Christian History is almost here! A taste . . .


The Hotel-Dieu, a Paris hospital founded by the church in the Middle Ages

Well, I’ve been a ghost on my own blog, but it’s been for a good cause: Christian History Issue #101, on Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church, is headed to the printer this Friday, Sept. 30. (To see it when it goes online in the coming weeks, watch this space.)

A small taste of the issue, my editor’s note:

Christian History’s founder, the late Dr. Kenneth Curtis, thought and wrote a lot about what our faith has to say to those who suffer illness and those who care for them. As the magazine returned to the red barn in Pennsyl­vania in 2010, Ken made several lists of topics he hoped the revived Christian History could address in future ­issues. At the very top was this one: the church’s role in the history of healthcare. I resonated with this topic from the start, but I did wonder, What kind of story is there to tell here? As it turns out, quite a powerful one.

As I began studying the topic I discovered two unexpected things: first, the church was much more influential in the history of healthcare than I had expected; and second, the modern hospital can be traced directly back to ancient and medieval Christian institutions. Continue reading

Stuff Chris Armstrong likes, #1


Picture of Benny Beaver (en), mascot of the at...

Yes, this is the mascot of OSU. Yes, it's a beaver. Don't anger it.

Some links I’ve run across and would like to share.

First, the Oregon State University historian of science, medicine, and ancient Greece & Rome Gary Ferngren (who I’ve quoted many times on this site–go ahead, search on his name–and am hoping can help us out on Christian History issue #101 on healing in the early church & the Christian invention of the hospital) was captured on video three years ago debating OSU colleague Marcus Borg at a meeting of the OSU Socratic Club. A straightforward, clear presentation of “traditional Christianity.” Worth watching.

Second, an interesting article on Salon.com about a question that has occupied my mind over the years: Why are Christian movies so awful? The “presenting symptom” here is the movie Soul Surfer.

Third, a poem by my creatively and intellectually outstanding future daughter-in-law, Hannah Sauerwein, on being sick. It moves in a different, perhaps more reflective, ambit than this poem by the master of humorous poetry, Ogden Nash. But it certainly has its own charm. Proud to know Hannah!

Ta ta for now!

Retired bishop calls for Christian history teaching in British schools


With the Bishop of Rochester

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, with the Bishop of Rochester

From an article in a British Christian online magazine. Though I am always suspicious when someone starts talking about “Judeo-Christian values” (there’s a lot of slipperiness in this language), I like this guy :) . Also, based on my own recent research into the origins of hospitals in the West, I have to agree with his statement (see below) that the nursing profession as we know it is Christian in origin. Finally, his examination of the origins of modern British systems of law and governance fascinate–I’ll be looking into the details of his narrative . . .

If school kids don’t learn more about Britain’s Judeo-Christian heritage we risk losing our national values, a bishop has warned.

The Rt Revd Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said: “The Judaeo-Christian tradition provides the connecting link to ‘our island story’”.

Children should know about the role of Christians in abolishing the slave trade, caring for the sick and improving working conditions, the former Bishop of Rochester said in an article for Standpoint magazine. Continue reading

Christianity as healing religion: Gary Ferngren on the roles and rationales of healing in the early church


As I have done my early research on the history of medical care in the Christian west, I have benefitted greatly from (and blogged extensively on) the work of Guenther Risse and Darrel Amundson (if you chuck those names into the search box at the upper right of this blog, you can see a number of posts of material from those scholars).

But I have still been left with questions unanswered about the theological underpinnings of Christian medical care. Didn’t early/medieval understandings of human dignity, rooted in a scriptural insistence that we bear the “image of God,” join the Matthean sheep-and-goats passage to set the table for a Christian imperative that all should serve the sick, the dying, the poor? I was looking for a smoking gun on those things in the secondary literature.

Well, now I’ve found it. It’s the wonderful and relatively new (2009) book by an Amundson colleague and collaborator, Gary B. Ferngren. The book is called Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity. Continue reading

Medievals on the usefulness of illness and the meaning of plague


Cover of "Medicine, Society, and Faith in...

This is a third post grabbing some insights from a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). The first post shared some of Amundsen’s observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians. The second revealed Amundsen’s insights into what medieval Christians thought caused illnesses.

“There is, in the literature, a definite appreciation of God’s hand in a Christian’s suffering and of the salutary effects of sickness in the Christian’s life. Continue reading

What did medieval people think caused illnesses?


Cover of

This is a second post grabbing some insights from a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). The first post shared some of Amundsen’s observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians.

In the excerpts in this post, Amundsen explores what medieval Christians thought caused illnesses, starting with some remarks on causality in mental illness or insanity. Along the way, he busts some myths. For example, many modern commentators believe–based on some misleading evidence in the sources themselves–that medievals assumed all illnesses came from devilish or demonic sources, or, a variant, from some hidden sin in the sick person. Not so, says Amundsen. Continue reading