hippocratic collection

Sit Down and Listen Up, Because We’re Going to Learn How Hippocrates and Galen Affected Medieval Medicine

Firstly, we need to outline what Hippocrates and Galen actually did. Neither lived in the medieval times, but what they discovered/taught carried on until then.


  • Lived from 460 B.C. to 370 B.C.
  • Created the Hippocratic Oath; these made doctors vow to work for the people, not for money or other personal reasons, which was important because it made people trust doctors.
  • Wrote and collected the Hippocratic books; a collection of books that were the first to have a set list of what to do to treat patients; doctors used them for centuries.
  • Invented the four humours; you might’ve heard of the terms “sanguine”, “phlegmatic”, “melancholic”, and “choleric” used in the context of personality tests, but what you might not know is that these are based on Hippocrates’ idea of the four humours — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The theory was that an imbalance of these as the cause of all disease; for example, too much of the blood humour caused heart disease so they would use leeches to drain your blood, too much of the phlegm humour caused flu, meaning that they would restrict all fluids that you drank (we now know that this is A BAD IDEA), too much of the black bile humour caused stomach ulcers, so laxatives were the solution, and too much of the yellow bile humour caused jaundice, so the cure was obviously something like ipecac to make you throw up.
  • Created the observational method; this was when doctors were encouraged to first observe the patient and try to figure out what’s wrong before treating them. This sounds rather intuitive but was new at the time.
  • Told doctors to look for natural treatments rather than praying to the Gods for help.


  • Lived from 129 A.D. to 216 A.D.
  • Performed a dissection on a live pig.
  • Proved that the brain, not the heart, was at the centre of the nervous system by cutting up the nerves of a pig.

Note how Galen never did a dissection on a human being. Dissections of humans weren’t actually allowed until well into The Renaissance except for educational purposes, and even then the case often was one person doing the dissection while a team of students looked on, never engaging in the dissection themselves. In British medicine during the medieval times, the Church was very strict in keeping corpses to their graves, not dissection tables, which heavily influenced the development of medicine at the time.

Galen’s work was still important, even if his major downfall was not dissecting a human, as he still made important discoveries, like the one mentioned about the brain being the centre of the nervous system. Without Galen’s initial interest in dissection, revolutionaries such as the likes of John Hunter, who helped to improve our understanding of human teeth, gunshot wounds, and child development, or William Harvey, who was the first to work out how the circulatory system works through his fascination with human anatomy, especially the heart, which he used pumped blood around the “wrong way” to discover valves.

Hippocrates’ observational method is still used today, and the Hippocratic books (as I said earlier) were used for hundreds of years. Otherwise, his four humours are pretty much only used when learning about historical medicine and for those personality tests that I was talking about (which are completely fake but are fun to do).

Now for how they affected medieval medicine; to be honest, they pretty much were medieval medicine. The Church banned any dissections that weren’t approved by them, and at the standards that I mentioned, meaning that medicine didn’t really progress at all until The Renaissance when they started to allow it (even the Pope went to go and see a live one in 1537). Medicine at the time was so abysmal that “barber surgeons” — untrained barbers that were basically only allowed to do surgeries with the reasoning, “Hey, they already know how to use a pair of scissors!” — actually existed. Roger Bacon (a 13th-century priest) tried to suggest that doctors should go and carry out their own research instead of piggy-backing off of Hippocrates and Galen, and HE WAS SENT TO JAIL FOR HERESY. It was absolute madness.

And what’s even worse is that during the medieval times, some medical advancement was being made, just not in Britain. In the Middle East, Ibn Sina (also called Avicenna) wrote Canon of Medicine, which listed the medical properties of 760 different drugs and Ibn Al Haytham discovered how eyes and lenses work, leading to the invention of the camera much later. Their communication was MUCH better as well, with The House of Wisdom, a massive library and study centre for scholars, being set up by Caliph al-Mamun in his father’s library. The reason why these FREAKING AMAZING DISCOVERIES didn’t make it to Britain was that the Catholic Church rejected all ideas that weren’t Christian, so any ideas originating from Islam and The Middle East weren’t allowed anywhere near the island.

So, in conclusion, Hippocrates and Galen affected medieval medicine by pretty much being medieval medicine, even though it was well after their times. Medieval medicine was so outdated that we’re lucky that The Renaissance was such a time of innovation, or we’d be nowhere near the levels of technological advancement that we’re at now.