Medieval Medicine

This will only be a brief overview of the sorts of things medieval physicians used as remedies for illnesses as I plan to do more detailed posts on them in the future.

Once the physician had examined his patient, come to a diagnosis and concluded which humour was at fault, he would then apply a remedy. This could take various forms, either singularly or several at a time. Some are familiar to us today, but others, such as bloodletting could be downright detrimental and even fatal to the patient. Here then, are the main treatments the physician had in his box of tricks – so to speak.

 Diet

Peasants_breaking_breadThe philosophy of the time concluded that diet had a large part to play in producing the humours of the body, and that the foods themselves had similar properties (dry, cold, hot, wet etc.) People of a certain humour tended to be drawn to foods with the same attributes and this was considered a natural thing. However, sometimes, imbibing too much of one type of food could cause an imbalance of humours and so, to put it right, foods with the opposite qualities were recommended.

The Rosa Anglica has this to say about what foods were wholesome in the case of syncope (or fainting/collapse):

If the cause be hot: sour milk, when the butter has been taken off it, cold fish, sugar, ripe (black) berries, good pears, and sweet-smelling apples. If the cause be cold give war yolks of eggs and a custard, and meat, and eggs whipped up with milk, and saffron prepared with a broth of capon and beef. Squeeze the soup out of them then, and pour wine over it, the which food is very good

Rosa Anglica p.155

 

Diet was a very important part of healing, and the intricacies of which foods were hot and cold and which should be used in what circumstances was an involved and complicated process. Luckily, many of the medical texts gave detailed instructions about what was suitable for the occasion. Some advice, such as giving easily digested foods to invalids, still holds up today, but we may find it odd to see that sugar and wine were held in high dietary regard, as they strengthened the system!

Exercise

Exercise was considered to be preventative rather than a remedy, but I’ll include it here anyway. It was thought that hard work and regular exercise were good for the health and kept the humours in a healthy balance too. The Regimen for Almería (1309), advises that:

If you will, walk daily somewhere morning and evening. And if the weather is cold, if you can, run on [an] empty stomach or at least walk rapidly, that the natural heat may be revived. For a fire is soon extinguished unless the sticks are moved about or the bellows used.

Regimen Almerie, Arnau of Vilanova, from ‘Lifestyle Advice, Customized: The Army on Campaign’, Medieval Medicine: A Reader, ed. Faith Wallis

 

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A moderate amount of sexual activity was also considered to be healthy, although this teaching often conflicted with that of the church. It was considered that sexual abstention could lead to a dangerous build up of seminal fluid – in both men and women. In a complete contrast from church authorities, physicians even considered that masturbation was preferable to the retention of seed. Galen, who many physicians followed, would often recommend that ‘hot poultices’ be put upon the genitals of a celibate women to cause her to experience orgasm and therefore release her seed.

Bloodletting

Bloodletting, or phlebotomy, was an extremely common practice, both as a preventative and as a remedy up until fairly recent times. It was thought it could remove an excess of humour and therefore relieve any existing or impending imbalance.

Th_MedievalBloodlettingIt could be carried out in many ways – through leeches, scarification, cupping and venesection. Venesection was the most popular, cutting a vein that corresponded to a particular ailment or organ. A controlled amount of blood (if it all went well) was allowed to flow into a cup and then the wound was staunched and dressed. Of course, accidents did happen – and in the cases of patients that were already in a weakened state, taking blood did not particularly help their recovery!

It was considered that certain times of the year were better for phlebotomy than others. One manuscript that has much to say on bloodletting is the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum:

These are the good months for phlebotomy – May, September, April –
Which are lunar months just as are the Hydra* days.
Neither on the first day of May nor the last day of September or April
Should blood be drawn or goose be eaten.
In the old man or in the young man whose veins are full of blood
Phlebotomy may be practiced in every month.
These are the three months – May, September, April –
In which you should draw blood in order to live a long time.

 

It also gives good reasons why phlebotomy should be practiced:

Phlebotomy clears your eyes, freshens your
Mind and brain, makes your marrow warm,
Purges your bowels and restrains your stomach and belly from vomiting or menstruation;
It purifies the senses, brings on sleep, takes away weariness;
It cultivates and improves hearing, speech, and strength.

 

Bloodletting is a massive subject in its own right, so I shall be returning to it in more detail in a future post.

Medicines

medieval-doctorsPrescriptions of herbs and other substances, also known as recipes or receipts, were the frontline of the physician’s weapons against illness. Long lists of plants were known to have certain effects on the body (and many are still used by modern herbalists today). Sometimes they were used alone or in combination, or they were mixed with other substances that seem less rational, and certainly less pleasant to our 21st century tastes (even if we still use toxic substances in both medicine and beauty products!). Once again, it may be seen that some of these receipts could have had a beneficial (or at least, not harmful) outcome for the patient, whereas others, containing substances such as arsenic, were completely detrimental.

Below is an example of the ingredients of an ointment ‘proven’ to cure a headache:

Take the good part of the eglantine flower, the rose flower and the flowers of mallow, marshmallow and muskmallow and the oily part of the seeds of parsley and fennel; the flowers of clover and honeysuckle, a pinch of green hyssop, lavender, chamomile, woodsage, meadowsweet, eyebright, the flowers of the great comfrey, thyme, St John’s Wort and a pinch of pennyroyal and the other mint…

 

As you can see, it is quite a long list, but as any modern herbalist would tell you, there are many plants in it that have the reputation of easing headaches and migraines.

Prayer and charms

The use of charms to appeal to a higher power, whether it be God, Jesus, Mary or the saints, came from a belief that although the above methods were useful in bringing about a cure, only the Almighty really had the power over life and death, illness and health, and so they were often used in conjunction with, say, a medicinal recipe or with surgery to ensure that a Higher Power would also become involved with the patient’s outcome. Here is a Latin charm used against toothache and invoking St Appolonia:

Contra dolorem dentium: Sancta Appolonia virgi fuit de cuius ore pro Christi amore dentes fuerunt extracti. Et deprecata fuit Christum dominum nostrum quod quicumque nomen suum super se portaverit, dolorem in dentibus non haberet + Alpha + Omega+ primus + et novissimus + principium et finis me defendat a dolore dentium qui est sine principio et omnia creans ex nichilo. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen.

(Compendium of John of Greenborough, MS London B.L. Royal 12 G IV (s.xiv) f.201 va/b)

 

A charm against the bite of a mad dog
A charm against the bite of a mad dog

Surgery

removing_cataract
Cataract Removal, Medieval style

Surgery, although approached with caution and usually as a last resort, was practiced widely, thanks to various treatises on it, most famously the Chirurgia of Roger Frugard of around 1180. These chirurgeons were able to perform many operations that are performed today, despite limited knowledge of the human body (dissection was rare due to restrictions). However, unlike today, the death rate was much, much higher as the patient tended to die either from blood loss, shock or infection. Anaesthesia (often the powerful and dangerous herbs of hemlock, henbane and opium poppy) was available but only to those who could afford it, so most patients had to undergo an operation conscious and in immeasurable pain.

In towns, barbers who made a living from shaving and cutting hair, also performed surgery, although most of it was probably minor: bloodletting, dentistry and wounds resulting from violence.

There is even archaeological evidence that chirurgeons performed brain surgery: trepanning, an operation thought to relieve ‘pressure’ from inside the brain that could cause mental illness – was carried out. In some of the skulls found with trepanning holes, the bone had started to grow back, indicating that the unfortunate patient had managed to survive such a horrendous experience.

***

 As mentioned above, this is but a brief overview of how you could be (hopefully) cured in the 14th century. The subject of medieval medicine is vast, with an abundance of charms, receipts and surgical procedures ready to be studied. In the future I will go deeper into some of these things, look at remedies, and also some of the common illnesses that afflicted our ancestors.

 

Sources:

[easyazon_link asin=”1176955594″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Rosa anglica sev Rosa medicinæ Johannis Anglici: an early modern Irish translation of a section of the mediaeval medical text-book of John of Gaddesden ([/easyazon_link], ed. Winifred Wulff, Simpkin Marshall Ltd, 1923

‘Sex, Society and Medieval Women’,  N. M. Heckel, University of Rochester, accessed at: http://www.library.rochester.edu/robbins/sex-society

[easyazon_link asin=”0859912736″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Plant Names of Medieval England[/easyazon_link] Tony Hunt, D.S. Brewer, 1989

[easyazon_link asin=”0859912906″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Popular Medicine in 13th-Century England: Introduction and Texts[/easyazon_link], Tony Hunt, D.S Brewer, 1990

[easyazon_link asin=”0859914011″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Anglo-Norman Medicine I: Roger Frugard’s Chirurgia and the Practica Brevis of Platearius: Roger Frugard’s “Chirurgia”;”Practica Brevis” of Platearius Vol 1[/easyazon_link], Tony Hunt, D.S. Brewer 1994

Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, A Critical Edition of Le Regime Tresutile et Tresproufitable pour Conserver et Garder la Santé du Corps Humain, Patricia Willet Cummins, published by the North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, Chapel Hill, 1976. Accessed at http://www.godecookery.com/regimen/regimen.htm

Regimen Almerie, Arnau de Vilanova, from ‘Lifestyle Advice, Customized: The Army on Campaign’, [easyazon_link asin=”1442601035″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Medieval Medicine: A Reader (Readings in Medieval Civilizations & Cultures)[/easyazon_link], ed. Faith Wallis, University of Toronto Press, 2010

[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”center” asin=”1442601035″ cloaking=”default” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”UK” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”mostlmedie-21″]

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