The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Religious and Medical Healing in Medieval Irish Society


School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

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Consideration of emic concepts of disease allows bioarchaeologists to go beyond the identification of diseases in the past to an understanding of the lived experience of afflicted individuals. Disease ideologies encompass not only the causes of illness and the social meanings attributed to certain diseases but also the options for care. This paper integrates historical, archaeological, and human skeletal data to investigate healing practices and health seeking behaviors in late medieval Ireland (c. AD 1200-1550).

Documentary sources (saints’ lives, annals, law tracts, and medical texts) indicate two models of disease causation and cure: religious and naturalistic. While assistance from the saints could be sought through prayers, charms, and relics, medical practitioners prescribed certain herbs and foods and performed physical procedures. Archaeological survey and excavation yield information about actual practices that occurred at places of healing, including pilgrimage routes, holy wells, and hospitals. Last, analysis of human remains and their mortuary contexts reveals the treatment choices of particular people. For example, personal badges in burials identify individuals who went on pilgrimage, and skeletal evidence for trepanation and set fractures testify to medical intervention. Although modern scholarship often distinguishes between religious and medical responses to disease in the medieval period, these are better interpreted as a continuum than as exclusive categories. In their search for relief from their ailments, ill individuals most likely used all available options, turning to both the saints and medical practitioners.

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