Medicine was a powerful component of the Byzantine Empire and its many citizens. The empire made important advancements in medicine, including diagnosing illnesses through observation and examination, especially of urine, heartbeat, and excrement. They knew that physicians needed a soft touch and an acute awareness when something wasn’t quite right. They even knew how to separate urine’s components using a vial. They prescribed lifestyle changes through diet, medicine, and even bloodletting in some cases.
But medicine was still in its infancy compared to what we know about the human body today. A Byzantine citizen couldn’t just expect to hire a medical malpractice lawyer when the diagnosis and prescription didn’t work out. In these cases they turned to religion instead.
Christians were known to have built many of the empire’s hospitals, even sometimes using churches as would-be care facilities when others weren’t available. The Byzantines were devoutly religious, and when medicine didn’t work they believed the blood of Jesus would protect them or lead them into salvation. Prayer simply mattered more and was taken more seriously than science — which might sound familiar if you live in the United States.
Icons like Cosmas and Damian were important to the sick Byzantines. They were Arab physicians who lived in the third century AD in Cyrhus. Stories suggest they may have been twin brothers who died in martyrdom. They provided their medical expertise without asking for anything in return. According to legend, the brothers were persecuted by Emperor Diocletian during his historic purge of Christians. They were tortured through stoning before they were ultimately beheaded.
Byzantine medicine was influenced by the Greeks as well. Paul Aegina wrote a Medical Compendium in Seven Books in the seventh century. He took knowledge that already existed, put it all in one place, and helped get it into the hands of the people who could use it to the betterment of society. But he also injected some of his own ideas.
He wrote, “The case of a broken thigh is analogous to that of the arm, but in particular, a fractured thigh is mostly deranged forwards and outwards, for the bone is naturally flattened on those sides. It is to be set by the hands, with ligatures, and even cords applied, the one above and the other below the fracture. When the fracture takes place at one end, if at the head of the thigh, the middle part of a thong wrapped round with wool, so that it may not cut the parts there, is to be applied to the perinaeum…”
This particular knowledge of how to set and mend a broken bone was transferred for centuries throughout Arabia.
Medicine in Byzantine was made readily available to all through the charity of the Church, whose members believed it was their duty to help the ill and ailing. Of course, not all medicine was realistic: much of it involved mixing Holy Water with other benign ingredients.