Ancient Celtic Medicine and Celtic Physicians — Part I, Hospitals

Ancient Celtic Medicine and Celtic Physicians — Part I, Hospitals

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher examines ancient Celtic medicine and Celtic physicians, Part I, looking at the establishment of the first European hospitals.

Although we visited this subject in a previous post series, there’s plenty we didn’t cover. As in so many areas compared with the rest of Europe, in medicine and treatment of the sick, the Irish Celts were advanced. Would it surprise you to know they established the first European hospitals?

The Druids Were the Healers

We have mentioned before that the druids, besides their role as keepers of the law, judgment, and mediators to the spirit world, also kept the knowledge of healing. If the druids’ spiritual guidance led the people astray, their role as physicians more often helped than hurt their patients.

Ancient European Health Care—Kill the Patient!

Before Christianity, the Greeks and Romans did little for the ill and ailing. Too often, the treatment of the sick, those in failing health, and the aged was to put them to death.  In general throughout ancient Europe, “health care” as we know it did not exist.

Around AD 250, a plague hit Alexandria, Egypt. Dionysius, a third century Christian bishop, described how people treated their fellows in that affair. The pagans, he said, “thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died.”

We also hear this from Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher, who said, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.”

Methods of treatment also often involved the spirit world. If you became ill, surely you must have angered the gods or been subject to some supernatural judgment or been under the curse of some spirit. Thus, treatment often centered around placating the offended supernatural power that caused the illness. The Irish druids often consulted astrology to help in diagnoses. So in this—blaming some spirit as the cause of disease—we cannot excuse the druids.

The First European Hospital—In Ireland

Given this attitude toward the sick, it’s surprising to find that the first hospital in Europe was actually established by Macha Mong Ruadh, the legendary Irish queen who died in 377 BC. She built the Bróin Bherg, the  House of Sorrows, at none other than Emain Macha, near modern-day Armagh. (For anyone interested in ancient, Irish history, Navan Fort, near Armagh, is well worth the visit.) Emain Macha, of course, was the legendary seat of the kings of Ulster. The hospital reputedly survived until AD 22 when it was destroyed.

And that wasn’t the only early Irish hospital. The Brehon Laws were a set of civil laws collected from the brehons or judges of early Ireland. These laws tell us that hospitals were to have been established in all regions of Ireland, implying the existence of a long tradition of treating the ill. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of Europe.

Christianity Changed Attitudes Toward the Sick

It wasn’t until Christianity came along that attitudes toward the sick changed permanently in Europe. In AD 399, Christians built the first hospital for the sick in ex-Irish-Europe near Rome. Dionysius goes on to tell us how Christians ignored personal danger and treated the sick during the Alexandrian plague:

“Very many of our brethren, while in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness, did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously and treated them for their healing in Christ, and died from time to time most joyfully … drawing upon themselves their neighbors’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.”

Why did Christians do this? Because the Bible teaches that every person is made in God’s image and that everyone has value as an immortal being who will live on into eternity. And because Christ taught that Christians are to love all men, even those who aren’t Christians, loving one’s neighbors as oneself.

The Irish Deserve Praise

It is to their credit that the early Irish—and yes, even the druids—attempted to alleviate the distress of their fellowmen by establishing hospitals in each region of Ireland. Why did the Irish, from all the peoples of ancient Europe, display such a caring attitude before they accepted Christianity? Was it the druids’ belief in an afterlife, however misplaced those beliefs were? Was it because the Irish upheld honor, generosity, and charity as values? We can only guess.

Sources for this post: The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis, and How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin J. Schmidt.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland in AD 432. To learn more about his book, click on the link.