The Medieval Miracles of Healing -- Medical Science

So it was that, throughout antiquity, during the early history of the Church, throughout the Middle Ages, and indeed down to a comparatively recent period, testimony to miraculous interpositions which would now be laughed at by a schoolboy was accepted by the leaders of thought. St. Augustine was certainly one of the strongest minds in the early Church, and yet we find him mentioning, with much seriousness, a story that sundry innkeepers of his time put a drug into cheese which metamorphosed travellers into domestic animals, and asserting that the peacock is so favoured by the Almighty that its flesh will not decay, and that he has tested it and knows this to be a fact. With such a disposition regarding the wildest stories, it is not surprising that the assertion of St. Gregory of Nazianzen, during the second century, as to the cures wrought by the martyrs Cosmo and Damian, was echoed from all parts of Europe until every hamlet had its miracle-working saint or relic.

The literature of these miracles is simply endless. To take our own ancestors alone, no one can read the Ecclesiastical History of Bede, or Abbot Samson's Miracles of St. Edmund, or the accounts given by Eadmer and Osbern of the miracles of St. Dunstan, or the long lists of those wrought by Thomas a Becket, or by any other in the army of English saints, without seeing the perfect naturalness of this growth. This evolution of miracle in all parts of Europe came out of a vast preceding series of beliefs, extending not merely through the early Church but far back into paganism. Just as formerly patients were cured in the temples of Æ sculapius, so they were cured in the Middle Ages, and so they are cured now at the shrines of saints. Just as the ancient miracles were solemnly attested by votive tablets, giving names, dates, and details, and these tablets hung before the images of the gods, so the medieval miracles were attested by similar tablets hung before the images of the saints; and so they are attested to-day by similar tablets hung before the images of Our Lady of La Salette or of Lourdes. Just as faith in such miracles persisted, in spite of the small percentage of cures at those ancient places of healing, so faith persists to-day, despite the fact that in at least ninety per cent of the cases at Lourdes prayers prove unavailing. As a rule, the miracles of the sacred books were taken as models, and each of those given by the sacred chroniclers was repeated during the early ages of the Church and through the medieval period with endless variations of circumstance, but still with curious fidelity to the original type.

It should be especially kept in mind that, while the vast majority of these were doubtless due to the myth-making faculty and to that development of legends which always goes on in ages ignorant of the relation between physical causes and effects, some of the miracles of healing had undoubtedly some basis in fact. We in modern times have seen too many cures performed through influences exercised upon the imagination, such as those of the Jansenists at the Cemetery of St. Medard, of the Ultramontanes at La Salette and Lourdes, of the Russian Father Ivan at St. Petersburg, and of various Protestant sects at Old Orchard and elsewhere, as well as at sundry camp meetings, to doubt that some cures, more or less permanent, were wrought by sainted personages in the early Church and throughout the Middle Ages.

There are undoubtedly serious lesions which yield to profound emotion and vigorous exertion born of persuasion, confidence, or excitement. The wonderful power of the mind over the body is known to every observant student. Mr. Herbert Spencer dwells upon the fact that intense feeling or passion may bring out great muscular force. Dr. Berdoe reminds us that:

a gouty man who has long hobbled about on his crutch, finds his legs and power to run with them if pursued by a wild bull.
and that
the feeblest invalid, under the influence of delirium or other strong excitement, will astonish her nurse by the sudden accession of strength.

But miraculous cures were not ascribed to persons merely. Another growth, developed by the early Church mainly from germs in our sacred books, took shape in miracles wrought by streams, by pools of water, and especially by relics. Here, too, the old types persisted, and just as we find holy and healing wells, pools, and streams in all other ancient religions, so we find in the evolution of our own such examples as Naaman the Syrian cured of leprosy by bathing in the river Jordan, the blind man restored to sight by washing in the pool of Siloam, and the healing of those who touched the bones of Elisha, the shadow of St. Peter, or the handkerchief of St. Paul.

St. Cyril, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and other great fathers of the early Church, sanctioned the belief that similar efficacy was to be found in the relics of the saints of their time; hence, St. Ambrose declared that ``the precepts of medicine are contrary to celestial science, watching, and prayer,'' and we find this statement reiterated from time to time throughout the Middle Ages. From this idea was evolved that fetichism which we shall see for ages standing in the way of medical science.

Theology, developed in accordance with this idea, threw about all cures, even those which resulted from scientific effort, an atmosphere of supernaturalism. The vividness with which the accounts of miracles in the sacred books were realized in the early Church continued the idea of miraculous intervention throughout the Middle Ages. The testimony of the great fathers of the Church to the continuance of miracles is overwhelming; but everything shows that they so fully expected miracles on the slightest occasion as to require nothing which in these days would be regarded as adequate evidence.

In this atmosphere of theologic thought medical science was at once checked. The School of Alexandria, under the influence first of Jews and later of Christians, both permeated with Oriental ideas, and taking into their theory of medicine demons and miracles, soon enveloped everything in mysticism. In the Byzantine Empire of the East the same cause produced the same effect; the evolution of ascertained truth in medicine, begun by Hippocrates and continued by Herophilus, seemed lost forever. Medical science, trying to advance, was like a ship becalmed in the Sargasso Sea: both the atmosphere about it and the medium through which it must move resisted all progress. Instead of reliance upon observation, experience, experiment, and thought, attention was turned toward supernatural agencies.

White, A. D. 1898. Warfare of Science with Theology. Chapter XIII: From Miracles to Medicine. New York. D. Appleton and Company. Copyright, 1898 By D. Appleton and Company.

For more accounts at this site see:
Black Death Spreads
The Plague: Will it Ever End?
I Saw the Death
The Plague

For more accounts at different sites see:
The Plague: an account from Boccaccio's The Decameron
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