Let’s Learn About it: Medicine in the Middle Ages

Ahh, the wonderful times of yore; with kings, lords, ladies and knights in shining armor. When poor people had excellent singing skills and would break into song every morning while knights galloped through enchanted forests, their hair waving in slow motion. Those wonderful, wonderful times…

MedMed

Oh… Oh my…

middle_ages_back_death

*gulp*

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

Okay, those skeletons look like they’re having a great time but still you get the point. If you weren’t a dancing skeleton during the middle ages things definitely not great, or even really that good either. Okay, those times sucked.

If people weren’t being tortured and murdered in the most horrible ways you can imagine for being heretics (and everybody was a heretic); there was always the constant wars and the horrific diseases people had to look forward to. Actually the life expectancy during these times was the old old age of 35.

Let that sink in for a moment, thirty-five years old. If you lived passed that it was pretty much a miracle. Well maybe not a miracle but…

Local Input~ FOR NATIONAL POST USE ONLY - NO POSTMEDIA - Angry senior nun brandishing ruler as weapon. Credit: Thinkstock/ Getty.

Okay okay, it was definitely a miracle.

Still though for as bad as times were, there was still some attempt to keep people alive. Not to spoil the surprise for anyone but they were typically very bad at it. And that brings us to the most important (and only) rule of Medieval Medicine…

Everyone was bad at it (but Europe was especially bad)

Around this time doctors aka “guys dressed like giant crows with top hats”, had some knowledge of herbs in order to concoct remedies that acted as antiseptics, local anesthetics and even managed to cure infe—

Local Input~ FOR NATIONAL POST USE ONLY - NO POSTMEDIA - Angry senior nun brandishing ruler as weapon. Credit: Thinkstock/ Getty.

Evil Spirits.

And how exactly did they treat these, er “evil spirits”? Medical practice at the time was deeply rooted in the idea that the body was made up of four essential fluids or humors; yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm.

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“Ahh yes you have too much Jerry Seinfeld in your blood”

When a doctor determined that you had too much of one of these humors, every effort was made to drain your body of it. As you may have guessed, this meant making the patient vomit, sweat or bleed.

And when they weren’t making you spew bodily fluids all over the place doctors would use herbs, leeches, worms, urine, and animal excrement to cure illnesses and ailments. These were applied in a number of ways such as through pills, drinks, washes, baths, rubs, poultices, purges and ointment.

Some more specific examples of medieval remedies included using liquorice and comfrey for lung illness; using mint, wormwood and balm for stomach problems and using vinegar to clean out cuts. Meanwhile, oil extracted from Myrrh  was used as an antiseptic, and Yarrow extract was used to treat headaches.

While most remedies were simply oils and other ingredients extracted from different plants, others were a bit more bizarre and sometimes just downright lethal. For instance one potion’s ingredients included gall from a castrated boar, bryony, opium, henbane  and hemlock juice. Go ahead and take a moment to look at those links…

Or if you prefer a summary, those all either have psychoactive properties, are straight-up poisonous or are from a castrated boar. I hate to see the effects of all of those ingredients mixed together.

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Meanwhile, surgeons were expertly trained with twenty years of med school under their belt with years of shadowing top surgeons before they were allowed to give surgery.

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In reality, a surgeon wasn’t trained at all. That’s because a surgeon wasn’t even a profession; surgery was done by your local butcher or barber. You know those old timey red and white barber shop poles? Yeah those are symbolic of blood and bandages. Think about that the next time you ask them to take a little more off the top and then decide not to tip.

Surgeons were just basically anyone who was kind of good with a knife. Needless to say surgery didn’t go too well too often. When it came down to it the simple and most effective method to surviving surgery was to not get surgery. Still though, despite the high mortality rate there are reports of some fairly impressive surgeries, including ones for: breast cancer, fistulas, hemorrhoids, gangrene, and cataracts.

Come on now they don’t sound so bad?

In all fairness, doctors at the time were horrifically bad. Like, worse than “makes you sit in a cold office in your underwear while he brings in a group of med students” bad. For example the remedy for a toothache was to hold a candle up to the tooth, until the worms fell out into a cup held by the patient’s mouth. Yep, worms.

“Hi there, I’m in your teeth!”

How about for kidney stones? Ah yes, a very simple fix. Just use this hot plaster smeared with honey and pigeon shit. How they come up with this one I haven’t the slightest clue.

What about something as horrific as the bubonic plague? What did doctor’s come up with for this terrible disease that killed 60% of Europe’s population. Surely the greatest medical minds of the era came up with the best remedy they could; showing innovation, ingenuity and a determination that was downright legendary. These great minds came up with…

Lancing the buboes then applying onions butter and garlic.

So you were basically being stabbed in the crotch with a spear and then dudes dressed like crows would put onions, butter and garlic on it.

This was a common methodology when it came to trying to cure diseases and heal ailments. Essentially, many doctors equated sweet smelling or “smells like dinner” with being healthy. So often instead of actually trying to cure the disease itself they tried to make the patient smell better. For instance, head pains were often treated with roses, lavender, sage and bay. Meanwhile coriander was used to reduce fevers.

On the other side of the coin were those in the “let’s just rub gross shit on this person” camp of medical methodology. Animal urine and excrement were often used in a number of ways to treat diseases as well. I’m not quite certain but I believe the logic behind it was, “let’s gross this person out so much that they won’t dare get sick again.”

Okay, sounds pretty horrible. Why were things so awful?

More than likely, it was a combination of things. But one thing is for certain: It was pretty much always the patient’s fault for being a dirty, blasphemous sinner. Every illness was a punishment from God for sin. Everything that could go wrong with the human body was blamed on evil spirits.

Yeah, these guys

Yeah, these guys

And what better way than to relieve the patient of evil spirits than with perhaps the most famous and wonderful medical technique from the era: trepanning. Trepanning was where a surgeon (read: the local butcher) would cut a hole into your skull (or if you were especially lucky cut out part of your brain), then the evil spirits would drain out of you.

Let’s assume for a moment, just for the fun of it, that evil spirits weren’t all to blame. Suppose, now this may sound ridiculous but hear me out, perhaps it was the combination of people being packed close together in overcrowded cities, non-existent hygiene (what the hell are germs?) a sewage system that came down to “throw contents of crock pot out the window”, knowing virtually nothing about the human body and a downright bizarre way of treating ailments that made disease so rampant.

Take this Knowledge with you and Prosper

Perhaps you could use this knowledge for more accurate portrayals of healing remedies and life in the medieval city for your fantasy novel. Perhaps some of you could even use some of the knowledge contained above in your next D&D game. Or maybe you’re a game designer looking to make a game set in the middle ages and you needed something to add authenticity and a feeling of realism to your game.

In the comment section below please tell me if you plan on using medicine in the middle ages for your next writing project, D&D session, game design or for anything else you might like to tell me. Also, let me know what you would like to learn more about and maybe I’ll make it a feature in another edition of Let’s Learn About it

Thanks and I hope you learned something today.

Want to learn more? Check out these links:

  1. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/health_and_medicine_in_medieval_.htm
  2. http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/morhealt.html
  3. http://www.lordsandladies.org/medicine-in-the-middle-ages.htm
  4. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/medicine/medieval-islamic-medicine.php
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