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Miracle-working icons and relics versus scientific based medicine: healthcare in the Muslim Empire versus Byzantium

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In different countries, things develop differently, even throughout the same time period. Medicine is no different, especially in the Muslim and Byzantine Empires. From 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D. the medicine in these regions was very different; Byzantium had very primitive medicine compared to Islam, who had more advanced medicine.

Byzantium’s medicine was undeveloped in the time period of 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D. “Miracle-working icons and relics were seen as more powerful means of supernatural healing, and were preferred to medicine by many people….”(Rautman). This created confusion in healthcare and medical treatment, because the line was not clear on when to use scientific medicine and when to use magic (Rautman). This most likely led to one very commonly known disease that spread through Byzantine during the reign of Constantine; the Bubonic Plague, which lasted 158 years (Spielvogel 304). The Byzantines trained wealthy government official and their families in healthcare, although magic was used a lot more often (Greenfield). Magic was used for almost every illness or injury, from headaches to eye diseases (Rautman). In the Byzantine Empire, often times magicians would work in medicine instead of physicians who practiced more conventional medicine. In Byzantium, “Protective and healing spells were among the most frequent magical appeals and were combined with charms and potions.” and medicine was more magic than science (Rautman).

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At the same time in history as the Byzantines, Islam’s medicine was becoming more modern. Muslims drew heavily upon Greeks ideas, and those ideas because a major influence for later development (Islamic Beliefs). Some of these ideas came from a Greek physician, Galen, who theorized that the lack of equilibrium between the body and environment caused disease (Islamic Beliefs). Also, Islam had physicians capable of surgery, although these surgeons were held at low regard (History of Medicine). Muslims also let Jews and Christians practice medicine, and become physicians as well (History of Medicine). Not only did Islam have extensive medical knowledge from the Greeks, but they also contributed their own discoveries into chemistry and the preparation of medicines, and composed many books on these topics (History of Medicine). A physician named Rhazes wrote a “comprehensive book” and a “treatise” on both smallpox and the measles (History of Medicine). Also, a physician named Avicenna wrote a large medical encyclopedia called, “Canon of Medicine” (Garnick). Though Islam advanced rapidly in medicine, religion restricted them from learning some things, like learning about the body through dissections. But, many people still dissected humans anyways (Islamic Beliefs). Overall, early Muslim physicians greatly expanded observation-based medical knowledge, and wrote many books on the topic (Islamic Beliefs; History of Medicine).

There are many big differences seen between these two regions when they are compared. Byzantium used a lot of folklore and magic as medicine, while Islam was using chemistry and medicines (History of Medicine; Rautman). Also, Byzantium trained only government people in medicine, while Islam allowed many more people to learn and practice it (History of Medicine; Greenfield). Though there were many differences, there were also a few similarities between these two regions. One example is, both regions were training people in medicine, Byzantium was training government officials , and Muslims trained those who wanted to learn (History of Medicine; Greenfield).

It is important to study these two regions for many reasons. It was the same time period, but Byzantium had very primitive medicine compared to the more sophisticated Islamic medicine. The Byzantine Empire was not far from the Muslim Empires, so why was there such a big difference in knowledge? It could have been the religion, or a plague that stopped Byzantium from learning more, but whatever the case might be, in the time period of 500 – 1450 A.D., Byzantine medicine was very primal while the Islamic medicine was more developed.


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