Overview of Byzantine Medicine

We all know that innovation can come fast and furious in modern times, especially in technology.

But every so often, there comes a “perfect” innovation that withstands the test of time with very minor improvements or decades or even centuries.

When it comes to medicine in the Byzantine era (5th century to 15th century A.D.), there was such an innovation that came in the form of medical knowledge and education. This was in a medical textbook that was used to train doctors for nearly eight centuries after its completion.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance period that medicine underwent massive updates and innovations, but for 800 previous years, medicine was pretty well covered by a seven-book set of texts called The Medical Compendium, written by noteworthy Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina in the last part of the seventh century and was considered the medical textbook of the age and in future generations.

Unlike the perception of Byzantine science, which was not considered much on innovation but instead a “transmitter” of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge forward into the Renaissance, the Byzantine Era provided not only vital compilations of medical knowledge from predecessors but also some of their own innovations and theories. Most Byzantine medicines was based on original Greek and Roman sources, primarily those works of Hippocrates and Galen.

The biggest contribution to medicine came in the compilation of knowledge, as several early iterations of what we would call today “textbooks” came into being by several Byzantine-era physicians, the most noteworthy being Paul of Aegina but also including Nicholas Myrepsos of the 13th century, whose textbook about pharmaceutics lasted well into the Renaissance, including French pharmaceutics, until the middle of the 17th century.

Another noteworthy work was called the Vienna Dioscurides, which was written for the emperor’s daughter early in the 6th century. It was vital in medicine at the time, as much of the remedies were herbal in nature, and the work compiled information about more than 600 plants and how they each could be used as remedial agents.

Another achievement of the Byzantines was the concept of the hospital for the public. Early hospitals, including those of the Roman Empire, were primarily for soldiers and slaves. But starting with John II Comnenus in the 12th century, hospitals became facilities for the sick and poor to provide basic needs and were overseen and developed by churches to develop more Christian followers and to do some healing. Much of that has carried forward into modern times.

Oribasius was one of the great contributors to the Renaissance as a compiler of resources in medicine, including several textbooks. The works were taken from Greek, updated into English and French during the Renaissance, and were corrected by Oribasius when some of the existing theories were deemed incorrect by practice.

With the work of Byzantine medical practitioners and members of the Christian church that dominated culture in the Empire, medicine did take some steps forward leading into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The work of Oribasius, Paul of Aegina and Nicholas Myrepsos, among others, by compiling the historical record and knowledge of medicine from the Greco-Roman era was vital in the practical progression of medical practice into a more modern era.