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Secrets of medieval medicine

history hunter's report

This is the third in a series of history hunter’s reports about the true history behind my new historical romantic suspense novel Sea of Shadows. The map above, created by designer Tracey Porter, shows the beautiful and dangerous medieval Mediterranean world inhabited by my characters.

Sea of Shadows is book 2 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, a trilogy of stand-alone novels about ordinary people living under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller in medieval Rhodes, Greece. The first report in this series focused on the real women who inspired my heroine Anica Foscolo, the artist daughter of a Venetian painter and his Greek wife. The second report zoomed in on the hero of my tale, Scotsman Drummond Fordun. Today, I’m delving into the secrets of medieval medicine.

The Hospitallers and health care

The Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John originated as providers of health care for pilgrims and knights in eleventh-century Jerusalem, and while they evolved into a military order over the centuries, they never lost sight of their founding purpose. When they captured Rhodes, Greece, in the early 1300s and set up their headquarters on that island, they offered medical care to knights and citizens alike. Rhodes became a tourist destination for pilgrims sailing to Jerusalem, and I found evidence of travellers receiving care and marveling at the opulent hospital there. Here’s the interior of the hospital today:

Medieval building in Rhodes town

The Hospitallers had on-site surgeons and other physicians and nurses (generally monks and nuns) to provide care in Rhodes, but as I researched this topic I learned that they were not the only medical providers called upon to cure illnesses and treat injuries.

Middle Eastern, North African, and Jewish medical expertise

Rhodes Town had a thriving Jewish quarter, and doctors from this community were regularly welcomed into the hospital to treat patients. In addition, Middle Eastern physicians and medical practices were well established in Rhodes and Cyprus. This discovery surprised me because the Knights spent most of their time and resources fighting Muslim forces from Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. They enslaved Muslims at every opportunity. In Rhodes Town, Muslim slaves were treated more harshly than Christian ones. They were chained together when appearing in public, and they were prohibited from entering the harbor for fear they would try to escape.

And yet, perhaps after witnessing Arab culture first-hand during their centuries-long occupation of the Holy Land, the knights recognized that Middle Eastern advances in medicine were superior to their own. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Order of St. John hired a Syrian doctor to leave his practice in Egypt and work as a personal physician to the knights in Rhodes. They secured safe passage for him on the seas and offered him various incentives to agree to the arrangement. I found another story about a doctor living in Cyprus who traveled to Damascus for treatment for his ailing vision. When he returned, he was cured.

When I looked into this, I discovered these stories were just the tip of the iceberg. There is an illustrious history of advanced science, math, and medicine in Arab cultures. Most of this knowledge only made it as far west as Spain during the medieval era. There were advanced surgeries happening in Damascus and Alexandria that wouldn’t even be attempted in the West for centuries.

Abulcasis and Adelard

A star of the Muslim medicine scene was Abulcasis, the “pharmacist surgeon.” During the eleventh century in what is now Spain, he wrote a thirty-volume encyclopedia on medical practice, including three volumes on surgery and detailed sections on pharmacology and drug compounding. When the Jewish and Muslim communities were expelled from Spain in the late fifteenth century, much of their medical knowledge left with them, and it would take several hundred years for the West to begin to catch up.

One of the few Westerners who experienced this world and managed to share it with his peers was Adelard of Bath, who traveled to the Middle East in 1109 and returned with a treasure-trove of wisdom. But disseminating this priceless knowledge to a world fearful of Arab culture and religion was not an easy task.

[In addition to many excellent articles on, I found The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons excellent background for this topic.]

Medieval women doctors

Although women in fifteenth-century Europe had few rights or opportunities, there was a path for women to become doctors at a medical school in Salerno, Sicily. I first learned about this through the marvelous historical mystery series Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (the pen name for the late Diana Norman). Her protagonist Adelia is a twelfth-century physician trained at the Schola Medica Salernitana, which was the forerunner of modern medical schools. A character in Sea of Shadows was inspired by this school and by Adelia—one of my favorite historical heroines. Here’s a miniature depicting the school:

Sea of Shadows launches April 12. To pre-order the book, click here.

To buy Island of Gold, book 1 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, click here.


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