Physicians

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Overview

Liaigs, midachs (from Latin, "medicus"), or physicians, played a very important role in the every day lives of the medieval Irish túath . Physicians were considered part of the nemed , or privileged, class. The physician profession, like many others in medieval Irish society, was most likely hereditary [1] . Though no information regarding the training of physicians survived, the profession, the duties attributed to it, and numerous other details regarding it are discussed thoroughly in the law texts and in literature.

The ancient law codes, though lacking in some areas regarding physicians and the nature of their profession, express, in great detail, a thorough knowledge of the human body. Bretha Déin Chécht describes the "twelve doors of the soul" and the "seven fractures" of the body:
Twelve Doors of the Soul:
  1. The top of the head
  2. The hollow of the occiput
  3. The hollow of the temple
  4. The apple of the throat
  5. The hollow of the breast bone
  6. The armpit
  7. The breast-bone
  8. The navel
  9. The side
  10. The bend of the elbow
  11. The hollow of the ham
  12. The bulge of the groin
The Seven Fractures
  1. Tooth
  2. Upper arm
  3. Forearm
  4. Thigh
  5. Shin
  6. Point of the shoulder
  7. The point of the heel
These parts of the human body, as expressed in the early Irish law codes, were often used to determine the severity of an injury and assign a specific price to the injury, which were both integral parts of the physician's duties [2] .

Physicians in Law Codes

According to the Uraicecht Becc, physicians are designated an honor-price of seven séts . [3] Each physician, whether an ordinary physician of the túath, or an ollam , a master of the profession, was assigned this honor-price [4] . Though nothing describing the training process of physicians exists, it is known that in order to be able to practice in a túath, the entire community first had to recognize the physician as qualified. Three criteria must be met for a physician to be accepted by his community:
  1. The physician must be able to administer a complete cure.
  2. The physician must be able to administer a complete cure without leaving blemishes or scars on the patient.
  3. The physician must be able to administer a painless examination.

Physicians treated injuries and illnesses using herbs, plants, and dietary prescriptions. Along with administering cures and examinations, physicians were also known to perform small surgeries on their patients; however, no text that describes the methods or details of their techniques and practices exists today [5] .

Physicians, in addition to their tasks of curing and examining, also acted as jurists in many situations involving wrongful injury (for more information on Jurists, click here). Because sick maintenance and the payment of honor-price and éraic was so vital, physicians played an instrumental role in evaluating injuries and determining whether or not a specific injury was illegal, and what kind of payment it deserved. In regards to judging illegal injuries, physicians, as well as the injured, were required to follow a process lasting nine days. If the victim was unlawfully wounded, the attacker was responsible for funding the victim's sick maintenance for the entire duration of the nine days. If the victim dies within the nine days, the attacker must payéraic as well as the victim's honor-price (or a percentage of the honor-price of the male to which he or she was subordinate). If the victim lives after nine days and is not fully healed, a physician is summoned [6] . If the physician determines that recovery is unlikely, or the victim will live with permanent handicaps or blemishes, the attacker must pay the crólige báis , literally translating to "blood-lying of death." [7]

Physicians supported themselves and their families in one or both of two ways:
  1. Fees, which varied depending on severity
  2. Clientship relationships, which earned them a sort of rent and the products of their client's labor [8]

In the cases of illegal injuries, as described above, physicians earned from one half of the penalty incurred by the attacker for the most serious injuries and between one quarter and one third of the penalty incurred by the attacker for less serious injuries. There are twenty injuries discussed in Bretha Déin Chécht that warrant fifty percent pay to the physician: a wound to any of the twelve windows of the soul, which account for the first twelve of twenty injuries. A wound to any of the seven fractures of the body, which accounts for the next seven injuries, also warrants the physician receiving half of the penalty. The last wound which requires half payment to the physician is "a wound which causes either a hemorrhage from the belly over the lips with constant vomiting of blood or urinary disease." [9]

Physicians also may be subject to paying sick maintenance if he is discovered to have performed a procedure incorrectly. "According to Heptad 6, the physician is entitled to cause bleeding during the course of treatment; but if he cuts a joint or sinew he is obliged to pay a fine, and must at his own expense assume responsibility for the sick-maintenance of the patient." [10]

Women were also known to be female physicians, or banliaig túaithe . These women physicians were one of only seven other types of women whose honor-price did not depend on that of their husband (or, in some cases, father). Their primary roles were as midwives or caretakers of the elderly and terminally ill. [11] For more information about the banliag túaithe , see Professional Roles of Women .

Physicians in Literature

Táin Bó Cúilnge


The Táin contains two mentions of physicians. In one story, King Conchubar's physician, Fingen, "restored a warrior's strength even though 'the sinews of his heart had been severed so that it was rolling around inside him like a ball of thread in an empty bag.'" Fingen's cure was the administration of marrow-mash, a mixture composed of the bone marrow of cattle [12] . Though this story is most certainly an exaggeration, if not completely false, it nevertheless communicates the indispensability of physicians in times of battle. Another story describes the event of a physician dressing Cú Chulainn's battle wounds with a moist mass of healing herbs, which healed him. [13]

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  1. ^ Handy, Amber, "Professional Classes" (lecture, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, September 16, 2010.
  2. ^ Binchy, D.A., " Bretha Déin Chécht," Eiru 12, p. 25.
  3. ^ Eoin Mac Neill, "Ancient Irish Law: The Law of Status of Franchise." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 36C, p. 278.
  4. ^ Handy, "Professional Classes"
  5. ^ Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law : Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, pp. 57-58.
  6. ^ Binchy, D.A., "Bretha Crólige," Eiru , 20, 1938, p. 51.
  7. ^ Kelly, pp. 129-130.
  8. ^ Handy, "Professional Classes"
  9. ^ "Bretha Dein Checht," p. 25.
  10. ^ Kelly, p. 59.
  11. ^ Ibid. p. 77.
  12. ^ Ibid . p. 58.
  13. ^ Ibid . p. 58.