Health and Water in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Survey
As a requirement for life, water has enjoyed an interactive relationship with humanity through the ages, and this is no less true of the medieval era this survey will cover from about the ninth-century to the fifteenth AD. Because of its cleansing properties, symbolic associations, and the importance it is given in the Hippocratic and Galenic corpus, water has also often been associated with health — both as a healing agent itself and as a factor in the maintenance of the all-important equilibrium of the living body. It should come as a surprise, then, that the Anglophonic scholarship surrounding water and its role in medieval health can be best characterized as embryonic and fragmented, and certainly as lacking a developed methodological discourse or unity of approach. Although calls have been made since the early twentieth-century for a more systematic analysis of medieval cleanliness, usage of and beliefs about water, and relationship with bathing and bathhouses, most scholars continue to focus on the early modern and modern periods.
Medical historians, medical anthropologists, and other scholars concerned with a plethora of topics have written works centered around specific diseases; what comprises their arguments, evidence, and conclusions, however, varies greatly and begs the question, what exactly is the history of a disease, and how have scholars employed disease as a schema through which they analyze other topics? This essay will attempt to provide specific examples of historians (and anthropologists and literary scholars) using illness as a framework, and it will elucidate the benefits, drawbacks, and consequences of such work.
Few medical historians would argue with the statement that a disease is a constructed entity. The biology of an illness constitutes only a part of its meaning to the society from which it emerged. Oftentimes, there are non-biological factors — “beliefs, economic relationships, societal institutions,” to name a few — that also make up the concept that is a particular disease. Syphilis is a good case in point. The biology of the disease is fairly standard; it is a bacterial infection that, if left untreated, can become quite serious. Because of the way that it is transmitted, however, syphilis has garnered a scandalous reputation and has been associated with sin since its appearance in Europe in the late 1400s. The way the disease was handled institutionally (syphilitics were often banned from hospitals or placed in homes amongst one another) and the way that sufferers experienced it (often shunned from society, and when treated at all, given needlessly harsh “remedies”), shows that it was, at least in the eyes of the religious societies it ravaged, much more than what its biological attributes would suggest.