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Naturopathy: its roots in monastic medicine.


Our histories of medicine discuss Greek medicine at considerable length but pay scant attention to Christian contributions beginning in the Levant and proceeding through the dark ages of Europe. All of the great leaders of Western medicine in earlier and subsequent generations have been influenced by the Greek physicians; for example, Hippocrates, Galen, and Dioscorides. Monastic medicine, the predominant form of health care during the 6th through 12th centuries in Europe and the Levant, and was based on Hippocratic and Galenic theory placed against the backdrop of medieval theology.

All this was the basis of monastic medical practice, which became the forerunner of naturopathy in the US. This short article will serve to show the development of monastic medicine from the ancients to today's New Age medicines and naturopathy.

Monastic Medicine

Monasticism in Christianity became popular during the time of Constantine. With the government's endorsement of Christianity, many believers found it more difficult to live a godly lifestyle. Christian monasticism grew from the influence of Judaic tradition. The Essenes, a Jewish mystical sect, influenced the development of monasticism. They combined the healing of the body with that of the soul. The word Essene has been traced as an Egyptian term for that of which Therapeutae was the Greek word, each of them signifying "healer," designating the character of this sect as professing to be endowed with the miraculous gift of healing.

One of the great contributions of monastic medicine was to preserve the ancient texts of such works from authors such as Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, and Avicenna. Such preservation was the focus of early medical teachings and medical care. The conquest of the Roman Empire by German tribes (Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths) placed the glory and culture of Rome into the dark ages. The barbarians persisted in cultural destruction for centuries. The monasteries became the repositories of books, sacred texts, and academics. Study was almost exclusively restricted to clergy because the church became the only asylum for it. Thus monastic medicine was born. Greek and Roman medicine, after having played an important part of Roman culture, withdrew into the shadow of the Church. Faith-based medicine combined with physic became a central feature of monastic medicine.

The monks, being the primary caregivers, focused on natural, physical-based medical practices, including well-respected techniques such as general hygiene, bloodletting, dietetics, and herbalism. In the early Middle Ages, religion and the prevalence of illness, plagues, and infectious disease guided the practice, along with folk medicine, herbalism, and development of medical-surgical care. Since there were poor living conditions, poor hygiene, and no formal schools of medieval medicine, disease was a constant threat in Christendom (Europe) and often controlled people's daily lives. In response to the known epidemics --plague, leprosy, and influenza the Church began searching for an effective means of medical practice. "Medicine" was then considered a religious necessity for society. In this context, medicine expanded into an important occupation, encompassing a variety of professional and folk practices, ranging from natural, physical-based medicine to religious (monastic) medicine, folk medicine, and herbalism.

One of the important social developments of this time was the introduction of Christian monastic hospitals, which arose as probably the only organized provider of medical care in the early Middle Ages. Serious monastic medicine began to develop in the west when the monastery of Montecassino was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in 529. From here the Benedictines spread the medical texts and teachings to other monasteries, most notably Fulda in Germany, while Irish missionary monks founded centers in Switzerland (St. Gall and Reichenau) and in Italy (Bobbio). Thus, the monastic medical tradition had its roots deep in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and served a very specific role in the European community.

By the 11th century, women were also given the role of health-care provider and medical practitioner. Among the great healers in 12thcentury monastic medicine was Hildegard of Bingen, an ecclesiastical authority known for her visionary capabilities and ideas on natural philosophy as well as for her poetry and musical compositions. She was the author of the original medical text Liber Simplicis Medicinae, which contains Cause et Cure (Causes and Cures), a section devoted to the understanding of humoral physiology, disease, and herbal treatment. The concepts discussed in Cause et Cure incorporate the dominant medical writings constructed by Hippocratic and Galenic tenets of humoral physiology and pathology, as well as medieval theological principles.

Clerical medicine in England, earlier called monastic medicine, developed during the late Middle Ages due to King Henry VIH's ordered closing of the monasteries. The more liberal practice of monastic medicine continued to revolve around the belief that medical treatment was inextricably tied to the care of both soul and body.

Thus, the monastic medical system represented a transitional period in the history of medicine during which natural, physical medicine and principles of spiritual healing uniquely coexisted. One of the monastic community's most significant contributions to the field of medical knowledge was its role in copying manuscripts. Physicians were trained primarily through Latin texts and, in a culture where few people could read or write, the monks served as propagators and practitioners of this knowledge.


At the dawn of the Renaissance, Christian monastic medicine and hospitals declined in faith and numbers, partly as a result of church-imposed doctrines combined with the reformation and secularization of society. One of the great contributions of clerical medicine was to preserve "certain cures" and "tried remedies" while applying as a basis of treatment use by electricity, water, and physic, which also led to today's development of nature cure and naturopathy. Rev. John Wesley (1704-1791) was the 18th-century English clergyman who helped to pioneer the transition of monastic medicine to "clerical medicine" in England and applied the use of electricity for the treatment of illness. He is credited as founding the Methodist denomination. Wesley considered it a Christian duty to make medical knowledge and practical treatments accessible to the "Majority of Mankind," a necessary and important aspect also of pastoral duties.

The term naturopathy is derived from Greek and Latin, and literally translates as "nature disease." The term was coined in 1895 by John Scheel, a German homeopath practicing the methods of German healer Louis Kuhn and Bavarian monk Father Sebastian Kneipp. Of all the "barefoot Nature" cures that sprang from monastic medicine, the most renowned was that initiated by Kneipp, whose influence survives into this age. Considered by many as the founder of today's naturopathy, he taught Benedict Lust (18721945), one of the main founders of naturopathic medicine in the first decade of the 20th century. Lust described the body in spiritual and vitalistic terms with "absolute reliance upon the cosmic forces of man's nature."

Arnolad Ehret (1866-1922) was a German health educator and author of several books on diet, detoxification, fruitarianism, fasting, food combining, health, longevity, naturopathy, physical culture, and vitalism. Ehret worked at Lust's Yungborn Sanitarium for 5 years. Ehret continued the naturopathic trend by opening a sanitarium in Alhambra, California, before embarking on a nationwide lecture tour. His course on the "Mucusless Diet Healing System" became a book of 25 lessons for his students and later his most famous book.


Monastic medical practice respected Hippocratic doctrine, that natural causes did contribute to illness and disease, and monks performed nature-based, physical treatments on patients, forms of what we call today natural medicine (a system of therapeutics in which only natural, medicinal agents and forces are used for the phenomenon of healing). The design and function of monastic hospitals show that natural medicine practice was overseen and incorporated in an integrated practice that emphasized the importance of the spiritual element in health care combined with dietary reform and extensive use of herbs.

Thus, we could say that what would later lead to the practice of secular naturopathy today was the Christian practice of nature cure, dietary reform, herbalism, and hygiene beginning with the Therapeutae (Essenes) and developing through Christianity of Europe. Monastic medicine and naturopathy both have as their goal homeostasis within the body, which may be achieved by the proper and necessary balance between the integrated components of bodymind-spirit. Naturopathic philosophy favors a holistic approach and seeks to find the least invasive measures necessary for symptom improvement or resolution to regain health, thus encouraging minimal use of surgery and unnecessary drugs. Above all, it honors the body's innate wisdom to heal.

Prof. [Dr. of Med.] Charles McWilliams is a physician practicing naturopathy and does missionary service around the world. He is the Grand Master of the Sacred Medical Order of the Knights of Hope ( He maintains a large medical practice on Nevis Island, and is a licensed naturopath in Nevis and Ecuador.
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Author:McWilliams, Charles
Publication:Townsend Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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