Wounds and Wound Repair: The Medieval Literary Surgeon in Text and Cultural Tradition

in Medizin und Militär—Soldiers and Surgeons: Beiträge zur Wundversorgung und Verwundetenfürsorge im Altertum, Akten des IV. internationalen Kolloquiums, 17–19 September in Hainburg a. d. Donau, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum [The Proceedings of the International Symposium on Soldiers and Surgeons from Antiquity through the Crusades 17–19 September in Hainburg ad Donau, Archeological Park Carnuntum] ed. R. Breitwieser, F. Humer, E. Pollhammer, R. Arnott (Hrsg.), Neue Forschungen 15, 130–5 (St. Pölten, 2018).

By Larissa Tracy

Just as they are common on battlefields and agricultural fields from Antiquity through the Middle Ages, terrible wounds are not unusual in the corpus of medieval literature. Knights are frequently run-through, hacked to pieces and bashed about the head and shoulders, often with little or no consequence. However, some wounds have grave implications for knights and the realm they defend. In those instances, like the Stanzaic Morte Arthur (hereafter SMA) (c. 1400 AD), physicians are often called upon to treat wounds inflicted in chivalric combat. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure (hereafter AMA) (c. 1400 AD), surgeons from Salerno, Italy, attempt to heal King Arthur’s mortal wounds in Avalon. In the same text, the Saracen Sir Priamus tells the wounded Gawain that no surgeon from Salerno could save him better when he offers to heal Gawain in exchange for salvation (ll. 2575–2716),[1] suggesting that Islamic skill surpasses even that of the most famous medical institution in Western Europe. In other medieval literary texts, physicians and surgeons (even those of Salerno) are called upon to carry out interrogation, as in Chretien de Troyes’ Cligès (c. 1160–76 AD). These literary references reflect a developing tradition of actual medical practice; beginning in the twelfth century, texts on the treatment of wounds (including surgical techniques) were produced in the medical centers of medieval Europe, especially in Salerno. From the ‘Salernitan’ milieu sprang a corpus of comprehensive and detailed Latin treatises that transformed the practice of surgery.[2] The ancient Greek medical texts of Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 375 BC), Rufus of Ephesus (late-1st century AD), Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD) and Galen (AD 129–199) were translated into Arabic by physicians in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, then from Arabic into Latin in the translation centres of Toledo, Sicily and Salerno, [3]. The Arabic texts of Rhazes (AD 865–923), Ali Ben el-Abbas, or Hally Abbas, (d. 994 AD), Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, (AD 980–1037) and Averroes (AD 1126–1198) were translated and cited by compilers like Constantinus Africanus (AD 1010–1087) and Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187 AD).[4] All of these authorities—Greek, Arabic, Latin—were then gathered into compendia of medical and astrological knowledge like the Speculum Majus of Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190–1264 AD).[5] By the fourteenth century, many of these medical manuals were widely read and translated. The inclusion of physicians and surgeons in medieval literature implies a direct awareness of surgical practice on the part of poets, suggesting a literary audience for the growing corpus of medical texts in the later Middle Ages as a result of knowledge imported into Western Europe (partly by soldiers) following the Crusades.

[1]  Johnson 2001, 41

[2]  Wallis 2010, 181

[3]  Heffernan 2003, 126

[4]  Heffernan 2003, 127 ff

[5]  Aiken 1936, 361