Medicine in Medieval Times

Greek tradition was the basis for the practice of medicine in medieval times. Hippocrates was considered to be the father of medicine, and he described the body as being comprised of four humors, including yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood. He went on to describe the body as being controlled by four elements: fire, earth, air, and water.

Medicinal plants were an integral part of medicine in the Middle Ages. The texts of Dioscorides were the basis for herbal medicine as practiced at the time. Plants were used as cures for specific illnesses or ailments or were seen as having healing powers for multiple problems.

Daily life in medieval times was hard. It was a time marked by strife, illness, and war. Little was known about illness or treatments. There were no regulated training programs for physicians and no personal injury attorneys to turn to if something went wrong. Trial and error ruled the day. The aim was to help patients get better, but the treatments were often as bad as the diseases themselves.

Treatment

Some of the most detailed information we have about medieval medicine comes from the era of the bubonic plague, also called the Black Death. The Black Death killed more than 20 million people in Europe in the Middle Ages, nearly a third of the population of the continent. Combating this plague was the biggest challenge that medical practicioners had ever faced. Little was known about the plague other than how deadly it was. Physicians struggled to help patients with treatments such as poultices of onion and butter or a dried frog. They would apply arsenic or floral compounds or engage in dangerous bloodletting to help the person recover. As the patient worsened, the treatments became even more desperate. Doctors might have the patient drink mercury or have them sit next to an oven or fire in an attempt to "bake" the illness out of them.

Treatments for lesser ailments were not as severe and centered on using natural elements such as plants. Wounds were cleaned with vinegar, and myrrh was used as an antiseptic. Coriander would be used to bring down a fever. Sweet-smelling herbs would be given to cure a headache.

  • Illnesses were often attributed to demons, the stars, sins, and even bad smells.
  • Epidemics were often blamed on witches or cultural groups that were different from the majority group.

Surgery

The Middle Ages were marked by war and the injuries that go with it. Surgeons of the time had many opportunities to practice surgical methods. The need for antiseptics and painkillers was great, and it was during this time that wine came to be used as an antiseptic and opium was used as a painkiller. The job of a medieval surgeon was to apply first aid and treat broken bones as well as perform internal surgery.

  • Barber-surgeons were typical. They performed medical procedures and also cut hair and trimmed beards.
  • Medieval surgeons treated conditions such as epilepsy with a procedure in which a hole was bored into the skull.

Public Health

Until the Black Death, the link between health and hygiene was not well-known. Disposal of garbage and other waste was crude and unsanitary. Personal hygiene practices were very limited as well. During this time, improvements were made in public health to try to stop the spread of the plague and to prevent further outbreaks. The first law was passed requiring citizens to keep rivers and streets clean. Quarantine laws were put into place to shield healthy people from those with the disease.

  • "Gong farmers" were people paid to clear cesspits of human waste.
  • Monasteries were outfitted with running water and toilet facilities.
  • Towns often boarded up the homes of people who were sickened by the plague.

Further Reading

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