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Ancient Celtic Medicine — Part II, Brehon Laws Protected the Sick

Ancient Celtic Medicine — Part II, Irish Brehon Laws Protected the Sick

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his review of ancient, Celtic medicine with Part II.

Last week, we showed how the druids issued judgments, kept the law, and maintained an oral record of the clan’s knowledge. But they were also the clan’s healers. We admire early Ireland as the land where the legendary Irish queen, Macha Mong Ruadh, built the first European hospital in Emain Macha.

Questionable Diagnostic Methods

Celtic Magical Lore–Importance of Trees

But was the druids’ medical tradition a successful and accurate one? In some cases, yes. In others, no. The famous Gaulic physician, Charmis, was known to have used astrology to help his diagnoses. This technique, common to all Irish physicians, was used not only to diagnose diseases, but also to assess the prognosis for cures. Quackery or not, because of the reputation of Irish physicians, it spread to and became the norm for all of medieval Europe.

A Trove of Medical Knowledge

Despite their reliance on what we might call “magical lore”, the Irish druids had knowledge of herbs that did cure people. And before 1800, Ireland could boast of the largest collection of medical texts in any one language. The Irish monks who preserved so much of western knowledge also translated the works of Greek physicians like Herophilus, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, etc….

Irish Brehon Laws Protected the Sick

The Brehon Laws

The Irish Brehon Laws codified protections for the sick. These were written laws collected from all the clans, summarized into one body of law. They ensured that the sick were given nutritious food and wouldn’t pay too much for a cure. For a person wounded without cause, the attacker funded that person’s care from the fines he was assessed. Peter Beresford Ellis also reports that, “The Law of Torts says that ‘full sick maintenance [must be paid] to a worker injured for the sake of unnecessary profit . . .’”

The Brehon Laws assessed harsh fines upon ill-qualified or incompetent physicians who treated the sick and injured. And even qualified physicians, if they worsened a patient’s condition through malpractice, ignorance, or laxity, were required to compensate their patients. The Irish laws also looked to the future by requiring physicians to find and train four medical students.

The Laws Required Hospitals in Ireland

The laws also specified that each region keep a hospital. As Ellis reports, “The law is exact on the conditions under which it was to be built and maintained. It should have four doors, be placed by a stream of running water, and be maintained free of charge or taxation by the local assembly. The existence of such hospitals is attested by the names of towns or places such as An Spidéal (Spidall, Spital, etc…). The local physician and his students were in charge. There was a full-time caretaker or hospital manager who was employed to keep away stray dogs, mentally sick people (who had their own institutions), and anyone liable to cause the sick or injured distress.”

A Remarkable Concern For the Sick

This concern for the sick and injured in Ireland is remarkable, considering the attitudes in the rest of Europe. Alvin J. Schmidt reports that: “‘When epidemics broke out,’ Romans ‘often fled in fear and left the sick to die without care.’” The Romans, in contrast to Christians, also saw helping a sick person as a sign of weakness. So here we see, on the part of the early Irish healers and their heirs, a most admirable regard for human life. The Irish showed a concern for the sick and injured unseen in the rest of pre-Christian Europe.

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.