The country housewife, too, was expected to look after the bodies of her household in sickness as well as in health, and it was necessary for her to have a certain skill in physic and surgery. Life was far less professionalized in the Middle Ages; a doctor was not to be found round every corner, and though the great lady in her town house or the wealthy bourgeoise might find a physician from Oxford or Paris or Salerno within reach, some one had to be ready to deal with emergencies on the lonely manors. […]

If, however, a woman set up practice as a physician outside the limits of her home and pretended to something more than the skill of an amateur or a witch, there forthwith arose an outcry which seems to foreshadow the opposition of the medical profession to the entrance of women in the nineteenth century. The case of the doctors was a respectable one; the women had no medical degrees and therefore no knowledge or training. Nevertheless there were women here and there who acquired considerable fame as physicians. The most interesting of them is the well-born lady Jacoba Felicie, who in 1322, being then about thirty years of age, was prosecuted by the Medical Faculty at Paris on a charge of contravening the statute which forbade any one to practise medicine in the city and suburbs without the Faculty’s degree and the Chancellor’s licence…Her skill seems to have been undoubted, one witness stating that ‘he had heard it said by several that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than the greatest master doctor or surgeon in Paris’.

Nevertheless she was inhibited; but as she had already disregarded a previous inhibition and a heavy fine, she probably continued as before to practice her healing profession.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)


In conclusion, we may say that, in the Middle Ages, once men had lifted themselves up from the condition into which they had been plunged by the incursions of the barbarians, there was nothing like the neglect of surgery which is sometimes said to have existed. Surgery had its normal development, and reached as high a stage as medicine in that beginning Renaissance, which is the characteristic feature of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. The traditions of a low state of surgery at this time are all false and founded on insufficient knowledge of the real conditions, which have been so clearly revealed to us by the investigation of original documents in the last twenty-five years.

This was, in fact, one of the greatest periods in the history of surgery that the world has ever known. Whatever of difficulty in development surgery encountered was due not to any Church opposition, but to unfortunate conditions that arose in the practice of medicine. Professional jealousy and shortsightedness was the main element in it. Even this, however, did not prevent the very wonderful development of surgery that came during the Middle Ages, and that made this department of human knowledge quite as progressive and successful as any other, in that marvelous period when the universities came into existence in the form which they have maintained ever since.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The modern American historian of Theology and Science says, “for over a thousand years surgery was considered dishonorable.” For the sake of contrast with this opinion of President White’s, read for a moment the following remarks which constitute the opening sentences of Pagel’s paragraphs on Surgery from 1200 to 1500, in Puschmann’s Handbuch of the History of Medicine, already referred to. Before making the quotation, let me recall attention to the fact that Professor Pagel is the best informed living writer on the history of medicine. This book was issued in 1902. It is universally conceded to contain the last words on the history of medical development. There is no doubt at all about its absolute authoritativeness. President White has been calling on his imagination; Professor Pagel has consulted original documents in the history of surgery. He says:

“A more favorable star shone during the whole Middle Ages over surgery than over practical medicine. The representatives of this specialty succeeded earlier than did the practical physicians in freeing themselves from the ban of scholasticism. In its development a more constant and more even progress cannot fail to be seen. The stream of literary works on surgery flows richer during this period. While the surgeons are far from being able to emancipate themselves from the ruling pathological theories, there is no doubt that in one department, that of manual technics, free observation came to occupy the first place in the effort for scientific progress. Investigation is less hampered and concerns itself with practical things and not with artificial theories. Experimental observation was in this not repressed by an unfortunate and iron-bound appeal to reasoning.[…] Indeed, the lack of so-called scholarship, the freshness of view free from all prejudice with which surgery, uninfluenced by scholastic presumption, was forced to enter upon the objective consideration of things, while most of the surgeons brought with them to their calling an earnest vocation in union with great technical facility, caused surgery to enter upon ways in which it secured, as I have said, greater relative success than did practical medicine.”

President White has evidently never bothered to look into a history of surgery at all, or he would not have fallen into the egregious error of saying that the period from 1200 to 1400 was barren of surgery, for it is really one of the most important periods in the development of modern surgery.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

It is with regard to surgery that the opposition of the Church is sometimes supposed to have been most serious in its effects upon the progress of medical science and its applications for the relief of human suffering…

President White insists over and over again that whatever surgery there was, and especially whatever progress was made in surgery, was due to the Arabs, or at least to Arabian initiative. Gurlt, in his History of Surgery, which we have referred to elsewhere, is very far from sharing this view. I need scarcely say that Gurlt is one of our best authorities in the history of surgery. In his sketch of Roger, the first of the great Italian surgeons of the thirteenth century who came after the foundation of the universities, Gurlt says that, “though Arabian writings on surgery had been brought over to Italy by Constantine Africanus a hundred years before Roger’s time, those exercised no influence over Italian surgery in the next century, and there is not a trace of the surgical knowledge of the Arabs to be found in Roger’s work.” His writing depends almost entirely upon the surgical traditions of his time, the experience of his teachers and colleagues, to whom in two places he has given due credit, and on the Greek writers. There are no traces of Arabisms to be found in Roger’s writing, while they are full of Grecisms. Roger represents the first important writer on surgery in modern times, and his works have been printed several times because of their value as original documents.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The custom of having for medical attendant one of the leading physicians of the day, if not actually the most prominent medical scientist of the time, which had obtained at Rome during the thirteenth century, was maintained at Avignon during the three-quarters of a century in which the Papal See had its seat there…The distinct tendency of the Popes to keep in touch with the best men in medicine and surgery in their time is well illustrated by the case of Guy de Chauliac. This great French surgeon and professor at the University of Montpelier is hailed by the modern medical world as the Father of Modern Surgery. There is no doubt at all of his intensely modern character as a teacher, nor of his enterprise as a progressive surgeon. Few men have done more for advance in medicine, and his name is stamped on a number of original ideas that have never been eclipsed in surgery. After studying anatomy very faithfully, especially by means of dissections, in Italy, where he tells us that his master at Bologna, Bertrucci, made a larger number of dissections scarcely more than thirty years after the supposed Papal decree of prohibition, he returned to Montpelier to become the professor of surgery there, and introduced the Italian methods of investigation into the famous old university.

At this time the Popes were at Avignon, not far distant from Montpelier. From them Guy received every encouragement in his scientific work. He insisted that no one could practice surgery with any hope of success unless he devoted himself to careful dissection of the human body. If we were to believe some of the things that have been said with regard to the Popes forbidding dissection, this should have been enough to keep the French surgeon from the favor of the Popes, but it did not. On the contrary, he was the intimate friend and consultant medical attendant of two of the Avignon Popes, and was the chamberlain to one of them. The good influence of Chauliac on the minds of the Popes is reflected in their interest in the medical department of the University of Montpelier. About this time Pope Urban VI. founded the College of Twelve Physicians at Montpelier. He was an alumnus of the university, and had been appealed to to enlarge the opportunities of his Alma Mater.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Meanwhile, however, the return of the Popes to Rome (1374) and the displacement of the Albucasis and Avicenna by the Greek texts renewed the shriveling body of medicine, and with the help of anatomy, Italian medicine awoke again; though until the days of Vesalius and Harvey the renascence came rather from men of letters than of medicine. The Arabs and Paris said: “Why dissect if you trust Galen?” But the Italian physicians insisted on verification; and therefore back to Italy again the earnest and clear-sighted students flocked from all regions. Vesalius was a young man when he professed in Padua, yet, young or venerable, where but in Italy would he have won, I would not say renown, but even sufferance! If normal anatomy was not directly a reformer of medicine, by way of anatomy came morbid anatomy, as conceived by the genius of Benivieni, of Morgagni, and of Valsalva; the galenical or humoral doctrine of pathology was sapped, and soaring in excelsis for the essence of disease gave place to grubbing for its roots.

T. Clifford Allbutt, “An Address On The Historical Relations Between Surgery And Medicine” (1904)

Only those who are thoroughly and completely ignorant of the real status of medical teaching in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries continue to hold these absurd opinions as to the nullity of medieval medicine and surgery...While it is usually said that whatever teaching of science was done at medieval universities, was so entirely speculative or purely theoretic and so thoroughly impractical as not to be of any serious use for life and its problems, the utter falsity of such declarations can be seen from the fact that William of Salicet insisted on teaching medicine by clinical methods, always discussed cases with his students, and his medical and surgical works contain many case histories. This is just what pretentiously ignorant historians of medical education have often emphatically declared that medieval teachers did not do, but should have done, in the Middle Ages…Both Salicet and Lanfranc did their wonderful work in scientific medicine down in Italy where ecclesiastical influence was strongest. Italy continued to be for the next six centuries always the home of the best medical schools in the world, to which the most ardent students from all over the continent and even England went for the sake of the magnificent opportunities provided.

It was literally true, in spite of the tradition of Church opposition to medical science, that the nearer to Rome the university the better its medical school; and as we shall see, Rome itself had the best medical school in the world for two centuries, while its greatest rival, often ahead of it in scientific achievement, always its peer, was the medical school of Bologna in the Papal States, directly under the control of the Popes since the beginning of the sixteenth century.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

It has been suggested that this exclusion of monks and religious from the study of medicine by Church ordinance practically shut out all the clerics, that is, all the educated men of the medieval period, from the medical profession. Any such idea, however, could only have occurred to one who does not realize that at any given time there are only a comparatively few religious and a great many secular clergymen. Practically all those who could read and write in the Middle Ages were known as clerks, that is clerics, and were under the protection of the Church, most of them indeed receiving minor orders, and if all the clergy were to have been excluded from the medical profession this contention would be true.

So far is it from the truth, however, that a number of the great physicians and surgeons of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries belonged to the clerical orders, not a few of them were priests and some of the greatest of them, like Theodoric, were actually bishops. It was only the religious, that is the men who had specially devoted their lives to monasticism, who were forbidden to take up the study of medicine because it did not comport with their monastic vocation.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

It is sometimes assumed in the modern time, and it used to be the custom a generation ago for nearly everyone in English-speaking countries to assume, that because we knew very little about science in the medieval period it must be because there was very little to know. We have learned the fallacy of that supposition to our cost, by the republication of the great text-books of medicine and surgery of the medieval period and by the deeper study of such great scholars as Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. Even the scanty records that we have show us the Popes following the same sort of policy with regard to education and science as at the present time. Men who collected scientific information for academic or popular diffusion, as Isidore of Seville, Albertus Magnus, Thomas of Aquin, were not infrequently raised to ecclesiastical dignities during life and placed among the saints after death. Occasionally a distinguished scientist like Gerbert, who became Pope Sylvester II, or Petrus Hispanus the well-known physician, who became Pope John XXI, were even made Popes. It is easy to understand that their attitude as Supreme Pontiffs towards science would be not only not one of opposition but of sympathy and helpful patronage.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The best proof, however, at once of the flourishing state of surgery during the fourteenth century and of the utter absurdity of saying that surgery did not develop because of the opposition of the Church or of ecclesiastics, and above all of the Popes, is to be found in the life of Guy de Chauliac, who has been deservedly called the Father of Modern Surgery and whose contributions to surgery occupy a prominent place in every history of medicine that one picks up. While the works of other great writers in surgery of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have as a rule only come to be commonly known during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Guy de Chauliac’s position and the significance of his work and his writings have been a commonplace in the history of medicine for as long as it has been written seriously. We have already stated in several places in this volume his relations to the Popes. He was a chamberlain of the Papal Court while it was at Avignon, and while he was teaching and developing surgery at the University of Montpelier he was also body physician to three of the Popes, and the intimate friend and influential adviser to whom they turned for consultation in matters relating to medical education and to science generally…He knew how to prescribe manipulations and set forth the principles on which they were founded.

Scarcely anything was added to his method of taxis for hernia for five centuries after his time. He describes the passage of a catheter with the accuracy and complete technic of a man who knew all the difficulties of it in complicated conditions. He recognizes the dangers that arise for the surgeon from the presence of anatomical anomalies of various kinds, and describes certain of the more important of them. He did not hesitate to suggest some very serious operations. For instance, for empyema he advises opening of the chest. He has very exact indications for trephining. He recognizes the absolute fatality of wounds of the abdomen, in which the intestines were opened, if they were left untreated, and describes a method of suturing wounds of the intestines in order to save the patient’s life. In a word, there is nothing that has been attempted in these modern times, with our aseptic precautions and the advantage of anaesthesia, which this father of surgery did not discuss very practically and with excellent common sense as well as surgical acumen.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)