Massage is a method of manipulating soft tissue using compression and traction for therapeutic, palliative, and self-care or wellness purposes. The history of massage is long and multifaceted. The next sections include the history of massage from the Middle Ages through the European Renaissance.
The Middle Ages began after the collapse of the Roman Empire in AD 476 and ended in the fifteenth century with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The use of massage continued but fell into decline in Europe and Asia during the early part of the Middle Ages. This era was “the Dark Ages,” when many aspects of ancient culture and practice were abandoned. However, many of Galen’s medical texts had been translated into Arabic; Muslims incorporated the Greco-Roman medical knowledge into the Islamic medical framework. One example of the integration of medical knowledge was a text entitled Kitabu’l Hawi Fi’t-Tibb, or Comprehensive Book of Medicine, which included the use of massage. This text was written by the Persian physician Rhazes (854 to 924), also known as Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi.
Another example of Greco-Roman and Islamic medical knowledge integration was a text entitled al-Qānūn fī al-ibb, or Canon of Medicine. This text was written by one of the greatest Persian physicians of this era, Avicenna (980 to 1037), also known as Ibn Sina. The Canon of Medicine is the most famous book in the history of medicine in both the East and the West. Avicenna excelled in the assessment of conditions and comparison of signs and symptoms. He also advocated for the use of analgesics, or pain-relieving agents, which included massage. The Canon of Medicine became the standard medical text at many medieval universities and remained in use as late as 1650.
Much of ancient culture and traditions, including massage, were abandoned during the Middle Ages with the exception of a few of the aforementioned Persian physicians. Massage did remain an important procedure for folk healers and midwives, but no compilations of these techniques and procedures were undertaken during this time period. However, the revival of the Galenic tradition centuries later played an important part in the rise of scientific thought during the Renaissance.
The European Renaissance began in the fourteenth century and ended in the sixteenth century. The word renaissance means rebirth, and it was an exciting period in the history of medicine and medical treatments. Classical Greek learning resurfaced, and Western medicine was revitalized by new translations of old Greek and Latin texts. Among the newly revived texts was Celsus’s De Medicina, which came into circulation again, thanks to German Johannes Gutenberg’s (c. 1400 to 1468) printing press around 1440.
Ambroise Paré (1515 to 1590), the famous French surgeon, was among the earliest individuals in this era to discuss the effects of massage, and he used friction to treat dislocated joints and other orthopedic conditions. Paré also invented several surgical instruments and established new surgical procedures during this time.
In England, William Harvey (1578 to 1657) discovered the circulation of blood in 1628, and his writings did much to promote the acceptance of massage as a treatment measure. Harvey observed the hearts of living animals and determined that the active phase of the heart muscular contraction (systole) was the mechanism that pumped blood through arteries and veins. He was also able to show that valves in veins allowed blood to flow only in one direction, or toward the heart.
Harvey stated that “we are able to influence the circulation both by voluntary exertion and by passive massage in muscles and we should expect that both of these measures would influence the constituents of blood generally.” Although Harvey’s work was important, massage did not gain popularity in Europe until the eighteenth century.
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Ernst, E., Pittler, M. H., Wider, B., & Boddy, K. (2006). The desktop guide to complementary and alternative medicine (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Elsevier Mosby.
Dr. Susan Salvo is a massage therapist, author, educator, researcher, explorer, and perpetual student. To learn more, check out the “About Susan” tab. You can contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.