To what Extent was the Arabic world superior to the European world in the Middle ages

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Last updated: April 8, 2019

In my opinion the Arabic world was far superior to the European world, not just in medicine, but in virtually all aspects of life at the time. I believe this to partly be because of where Arabia was situated (In the middle of Asia, Africa and Europe) which meant they were the centre of international trade, and therefore, communication. And partly to do with their religious beliefs in comparison to the European faith.

What caused people to be healthy or unhealthy in the Middle ages?In Europe there were many factors affecting the health of people in the Middle ages. The Black Death, otherwise known as the plague swept through Europe regularly, often killing 1/3 of the population ever time. Also the diseases of the time, such as smallpox, measles and TB (Part of normal life at the time) caused many to be ill or die. After the Roman Empire fell, ideas on things like Public health were lost in Europe, sewers, baths and aqueducts collapsed, people dug cesspools right next to wells and water became polluted. After Rome fell, no single body stepped forward to take it’s place, countries split into tribes.Feudal lords were more interested in fighting and wars with other tribes than with advancing the health of their peasantry.

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The diet and harvests of Europe stayed fairly steady with the exception of when various epidemics like the plague killed so many that there weren’t enough people to farm the land. Child birth was always a problem and a very large cause of fatalities for women, but during the Middle ages the lack of public and personal hygiene meant that the risk of infection was even higher than usual. The other thing that affected the health of people in the Middle ages was the regression of technology after the fall of the Roman empire, much of Roman knowledge and skills were lost.

In Arabia, the Roman knowledge was preserved. Public and personal health, stayed at a similar level to that of Rome, Diet, harvests and technology remained stable. They had a national ruling government that put money into hospitals, universities and public health. Child birth was still a problem, but risk was reduced as it was often cleaner.We can see here that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe regressed in almost all areas, people were unhealthy and the ruling class did nothing to improve it.

In Arabia, Roman knowledge was held in great regard and preserved. Arabic health remained at the least, steady, and may well have progressed.What ideas did people have about causes and treatments of illness and injuries?Christianity was the ruling religion in Europe. The church would tell people what to think, and no one dared to argue for fear of being called a heretic or a witch. The church looked at Galen’s idea theories of the 4 humours, saw it didn’t conflict (Even supported) the Christian ideals and approved it as the main cause and treatment of ill health. Other theories were that God and the Devil caused and cured many illnesses/plagues, common sense theories, such as something with a bad smell must be unhealthy, bad things in the air (The beginnings of the Germ theory and the most true of all) and Astrology.Treatments varied. Simple surgery and amputations were common, basic anaesthetics such as Opium were in use, though many were actually weak poisons.

Treatments based upon the 4 humours such at bleeding and purging were common. Hospitals were virtually non-existent for a long time, monasteries acted as hospitals often.The religion of Arabia was Islam, unlike Christianity, Islam taught people to look after those less fortunate than themselves. The Arabs looked up to the Greek and Roman theories, the 4 humours being pretty much their only theory on causes of disease, with the exception of God.

Treatments were based upon this theory, the use of herbs, bleeding, purging and opposites were common and their government paid for large, clean hospitals.The Arabs were more progressed in their theories and treatments than the Europeans, basing their theories and treatments on the best scientific theories of the time, building good hospitals and had a good hold on the use of herbs. The Arabs also had trade links with the civilisations of the Far East, and the West, giving them accesses to more knowledge than the Europeans. (They did ignore the soon-to-be germ theory that was coming to light in Europe, perhaps because it was not yet fully thought out, or perhaps they did know about it, but we have found no texts to prove it).Who provided medical care in the middle ages?Healers in Arabia were for the most part, doctors that were more like the Greek scholars, studying philosophy and mathematics as well as medicine. They were very knowledgeable, often studying at a medical university that actually reacquired them to pass a test before getting their certificates. Some doctors we know about were Avicenna (Ibn Sina) who wrote a medical book called “The Canon of Medicine” which was over 1,000,000 words long! The other was Rhazes, the first doctor to identify the difference between smallpox and measles.In Europe, doctors were much less skilled.

No tests were needed to get a qualification. They charged large amounts of money for their skills whereas the Arabic doctors worked in government funded hospitals for the poor, blind, and those that would not have been able to afford medical care in Europe. The Europeans also had quack doctors travelling around the countries, selling cheap potions both supposedly scientific and superstitious. They also had wise women and apothecaries, these 3 professions looked after those that couldn’t afford a physicians charges.

Responsible for everyday care in both Arabia and Europe were women.Arabic doctors were highly trained, knowledgeable people that looked after all the people of their country. In Europe, the general population could go to quacks or wise women, whom had no official training and often had very dangerous ‘cures’. Only the rich could afford a physicians wage. Here again the Arabs outdo the Europeans.What caused diagnosis to stay the same or to change in the middle ages?In Arabia and Europe, religion both held back and aided the progression of medicine.

In Arabia, Islam taught that you should help those less fortunate than yourself. This meant that first-class hospitals were set up for the poor or those that could otherwise not afford treatment. The Emperors of Arabia poured money into public health, hospitals and universities. But, Muslims of the time thought that all the knowledge they’d ever need was contained within their holy book, the Koran. This idea spread to medicine, doctors thought that all the knowledge they’d ever need was contained in the medical books already written. Those of Galen, Hippocrates and those from the Far East. This meant they were not very interested in coming up with their own ideas on the subject.

The Church was the only centralised organisation in Europe. This enabled limited communication as people on church business could move freely. Monasteries acted as basic hospitals, and doctors moved between them. Communication, enabled by the church allowed the sharing of ideas, and aided the progression of medicine in this way. On the other hand, if there were any ideas that went against the church’s strong ideals then the church would not approve them, and without the church’s backing, no ideas could survive. Many good ideas never effected medicine until much later because they didn’t support Christian ideas.

Neither religion supported human dissection.Up until the 14th century, the Arabs were far more progressed in their ideas, treatments and preventatives. Then, the Turks invaded Arabia and destroyed it. Arabian doctors fled to Italy and to Universities like Padua and Salerno, bringing their knowledge with them.

This was a turning point for Europe. Public health began to be an issue, and people took more notice of practical cures than of superstitious ones. The Turkish invasion spread, moving through the Middle East, toward Europe. The Europeans sent soldiers that would become known as the Crusaders, in the war that was called the Crusades. This brought Europeans into contact with the Middle and even Far East ideas, bringing them back to the European physicians. This was the beginning of great progress in Europe.How far did new ideas and treatments affect the majority of the population?After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe suffered a massive regression in all areas of medicine and technology, by 1300 AD their contact with the Middle East meant that medicine and technology started to progress again. By 1400 AD they were almost to the standard of their Roman predecessors.

This was basically how health changed for the rich, first declining and then improving. For the general population this was not the case. First it declined dramatically, but any new ideas and treatments were expensive in Europe, only the rich could afford them and so the health of the general population didn’t really improve in Europe with possibly the exception of the public health measures toward the end of the Middle ages.Arabia didn’t suffer from the same regression after the fall of Rome, they preserved the Roman ideas and the health of their people stayed pretty much the same. The Islamic belief in helping others also meant that any new ideas and treatments were also offered to the general population without a second thought.

The Arabs were very good to their peasantry.ConclusionIn conclusion I would say that Arabic medicine (and Arabia as a whole) was far superior to the European world. From the fall of Rome until the European Renaissance of the 15th century, the Islamic world was the centre of medical knowledge. They looked after their people, where the Europeans were more interested in war and they looked toward the more practical ideas than superstitious ones where Europeans were more interested in curing the soul than the body. The Arabians were far superior to the Europeans in almost all aspects of medicine and health; theories, treatments, public health, technology

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