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The Sponge Of Sleep

The Roman Catholic Church was the overwhelming authority in Medieval life, dictating everything from worship to medical care. Medical teaching was seen as less important than theology. While the Greeks had idealized good health, Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages considered suffering a potentially valuable entity, which could test one's faith. As a result, the idea of healing the sick was controversial, particularly in the early Middle Ages. Some religious authorities suggested that medical treatment could be sinful. This climate was not conducive to an expansion of knowledge about surgery.

During the early Middle Ages, traveling surgeons often wandered the countryside, operating on individuals for hernias, stones, and cataracts, then frequently leaving town before complications developed. By this time, surgery was separate from medicine, and surgeons, whose work was often of low quality, had little prestige.

As the Middle Ages progressed in Europe, medical training changed. Medical doctors moved from an education based on apprenticeship to an education which included formal instruction at a university. With the founding of universities in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the idea of a central well of medical knowledge expanded. Surgeons were left out of this formal educational world, with most learning their trade as apprentices. Eventually, colleges specifically for surgeons were developed. Those with the least education were called barber-surgeons.

By the thirteenth century, technical guides to surgery started to emerge, complete with records of innovative techniques. These techniques included the use of the soporific sponge, a sponge soaked in a mixture of ingredients to promote sleep. The sponge could include opium, mandrake, and other ingredients. Such ingredients were difficult to regulate, and could cause drug dependence, death, or other less serious side effects.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the golden era of Islamic medicine transformed surgery. An Arab text from the eleventh century documented the use of cauterization to stop hemorrhaging and as therapy for chronic migraine headaches and epilepsy.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSurgery - Ancient Surgeons, The Sponge Of Sleep, Beyond Boiling Oil, A Sanitary Leap Forward, The Modern Era