During the medieval period, between the fifth and fourteen centuries, people in Western Europe did know about diseases, believing that evil spirits and magical forces could cause illness.
Consequently, many remedies were used for treating illnesses and curing multiple diseases, including prayers, incantations, potions, medicinal plants (herbs), and animal parts.
Medieval Europe moving into the Renaissance period, brought new ideas about how we understand the world around us.
This period saw the development of modern medical knowledge, scientific medicine, and technology. New discoveries led to medical advances such as blood transfusions and vaccinations.
Medicines Used in the Middle Ages?
Medieval doctors used ointments, applying medicinal oils to wounds thought to treat an injury, through the belief that certain plants had healing properties. And they believed that some plants drove away evil spirits. But many people died during the Black Plague.
Doctors and medieval surgeons were often seen as quackery and, therefore, not trusted because their medical treatment for an ailment or injury typically failed to heal the patient. Medical schools did not exist during this time in Medieval Europe.
By the sixteen century, medical knowledge was based more on folk traditions, potent medicine remedies, and battlefield medicine. Copies of herbal medicine practiced until late medieval times have been recorded and saved.
Medieval Medical Practice
People did not see doctors until the late middle ages when most of the community with medical knowledge to treat the human body were barber surgeons. They didn’t know what caused diseases, how to treat them, or even where to go to seek help.
Most people in Medieval England and Europe believed illness came from evil spirits or God, who would sometimes perform miraculous cures. If someone became sick, it was up to them to pray to God or ask saints to intercede. They could try fasting, drinking holy water, or making pilgrimages to shrines.
In the Islamic world in the Middle East, Avicebron, an 11 century Andalusian poet and Jewish philosopher, wrote “The Canon of Medicine.” These medical texts from Islamic scholars included detailed descriptions of Indian, Greek, and Muslim medicine used to manage public health.
He described treatments and medicine in the Middle East for the human body as bloodletting, urine examination, purging, and bleeding.
The Theory of Humors
Humorism is a system based on the idea that some illnesses are due to imbalances of internal liquids known as humors, which include blood, yellow bile, and black bile. The Greek physician Hippocrates believed that disease occurs when the four elements of humors are imbalanced. He wrote about his ideas in the Corpus Hippocraticum, compiled around 400 BC.
In ancient Egypt, physicians used humorism to treat illness. They believed that diseases occurred because of an imbalance of the four bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile (choler), black bile (melancholy), and too much phlegm.
Medical practitioners studied the human body and physical anatomy during the Middle Ages, and they discovered that blood flows through the veins and arteries while yellow bile flows through the liver and gallbladder. Black bile flows through the intestines and lungs, and phlegm travels through the airways.
Hospitals and Medical Knowledge
The word hospital originated in medieval times. At that time, it meant “a place where monks took care of sick people.” Hospitals were usually associated with religious communities.
Hospitals became common during the Middle Ages when many people traveled far distances to visit holy sites like Jerusalem. Pilgrims needed help getting there and back, and hospitals offered lodging and food while they recovered.
In the early Middle Ages, almost all hospitals were monasteries. Monks were trained to heal the sick. Because they lived among the poor, they had access to the sick. They learned how to treat wounds and diseases such as malaria and dysentery.
The word surgery comes from the Latin verb surgere meaning “to cut,” referring to the cutting away of diseased tissue or foreign objects in sick people. The earliest surgical procedures date back to ancient Egypt, around 3000 BC.
In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates introduced the practice of trepanning, drilling holes into skulls to relieve pressure inside the head. He believed that disease could be cured by opening the skull and allowing air to enter the brain. Surgical techniques improved throughout history, and surgeons became highly skilled practitioners.
Wounds were treated with wine, vinegar, and other liquids to clean and disinfect them. But there was no knowledge about germinating bacteria back then.
In 1879, Louis Pasteur discovered how to sterilize milk and fruits. He used heat, filtration, and chemical agents like alcohol, chlorine dioxide, formaldehyde, and phenol. These chemicals kill microorganisms, preventing them from reproducing. This discovery led to the development of antiseptic products such as Lysol.
Smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague all spread through infected people traveling across continents. In the 1600s, Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, where it decimated indigenous populations. By 1750, nearly 90% of the population of Mexico had died from the disease.
Measles killed an estimated 500 million people worldwide during the 20th century alone. And the Black Death, known today as the Plague of Justinian, swept through Asia and Europe, killing millions during the 5th century.
Native Americans lacked immunity to these deadly diseases. They didn’t even know what caused them. But once Europeans arrived, they quickly learned how to transmit the diseases.
The epidemics wiped out most native populations of North and South America. The Spanish conquistadors introduced smallpox to the New World, wiping out many tribes along the way. A few survived, but they were isolated from each other and did not develop resistance to the virus.
Smallpox Leads to Extinction
In 1520, Hernando de Soto led an expedition into Florida, bringing smallpox. He established settlements there, eventually leading to the extinction of the local Indians.
Meanwhile, explorers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci brought measles to the Americas, spreading the disease among natives. In 1493, the explorer Vasco da Gama returned home to Portugal carrying the disease. Within three years, half of his crew had been stricken.
By the 16th century, the bubonic plague had reached the shores of the Caribbean. When English settlers began arriving in Jamestown, Virginia, they brought the disease. By 1619, over 70% of the colonists had perished.
The Black Death killed over half of Europeans during the 14th century. This deadly disease spread quickly across Europe and Asia. In China alone, it wiped out up to one-third of the population. Bacteria carried by rats caused the plague.
In the Middle Ages, there were many different kinds of plagues. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the medical faculty teaching Western medicine knew that plagues were transferred by direct or indirect contact.
Smallpox, leprosy, and the Black Death all happened during medieval times. Native American populations had no resistance to these diseases before contact with European settlers.
European settlers brought new viruses like smallpox and measles into the New World. These diseases spread quickly through native populations.
The practice of bloodletting dates back thousands of years. In ancient times, people believed that bloodletting could cure many diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and syphilis. However, there is little evidence that bloodletting helps people with illnesses like malaria, tuberculosis, lung problems, or syphilis.
There is little evidence that phlegm-draining practices help people who suffer from conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, sinus infections, hay fever, or colds. And while bloodletting is sometimes used to treat some types of cancer, it does nothing to prevent or cure cancer.
The word charm conjures up images of love potions, magic wands, and fairy tales. Charms were thought to provide exceptional medical care, providing miraculous cures that could not be accomplished with available medicine.
For example, many charms contain ingredients that do not work well together. They often lack any real substance. Some people believe in them despite little evidence that they work.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The Renaissance marked the beginning of modern medicine. Before the Renaissance, physicians believed that all illnesses could be cured by touch; they didn’t know much about anatomy or physiology, let alone how to treat patients.
During the Renaissance, physicians began studying medicine and science. They studied anatomy, learned about blood circulation, discovered germs, and developed drugs and surgical techniques. This practice allowed them to diagnose and treat illness better.
In the Middle Ages, people thought mercury could cure all diseases. They believed it had healing properties and used it both internally and externally.
Mercury was an elixir and topical medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. As well as being applied directly to wounds, it was also used to treat eye infections.
The Romans even used it as a remedy against sexually transmitted diseases.
The zodiac man is one of the earliest examples of medical illustration. He was published in 1545 by the German physician Georgius Agricola, better known as Georg Joachim Rheticus. In his book De Rerum Natura, he described the zodiac man as “an image of the heavens.” The zodiac man represents the 12 signs of the zodiac.
His head bears the constellation Capricorn, while his body depicts the constellations Cancer, Leo, Virgo, and Scorpio. His left hand holds a cup containing water, representing Aquarius, and his right hand holds a rod, symbolizing Pisces.
In addition to representing the sky, the zodiac man is a visual metaphor for human anatomy. His head resembles the skull; his arms represent the limbs; his legs are similar to the thigh bones; his feet resemble the toes.
Urine is the most common method used to check for diseases. Physicians were often shown holding a small glass flask containing urine in bright light. This allowed them to see what was inside the container. They could use it to diagnose diabetes, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, bladder cancer, and pregnancy.
The earliest known written reference to urine dates back to 3000 BC. At that time, people believed that urine contained magical properties. Ancient Egyptians believed drinking urine could protect against snake bites and help cure eye problems.
In modern times, scientists are still studying how urine works. Scientists say that urine contains several chemicals, including proteins, sugars, fat molecules, and salts.
These substances work together to keep the body healthy. For example, protein helps build muscles, while sugar keeps blood flowing throughout the body.
Occult Healing and Herbal Medicine
The Middle Ages saw many medical innovations, including the development of surgical instruments and techniques. Some physicians even practiced occult healing, believing it had curative powers. They would use spells, charms, incantations, herbal remedies, and potions to heal their patients.
Doctors often used magical methods to treat illness. For example, some believed that demons could influence human behavior and cause disease.
Others thought that certain herbs and minerals could help alleviate pain and sickness. In addition, they sometimes performed rituals such as exorcisms, invocations, prayers, and blessings.
The Renaissance was a time of great progress in medicine. Physicians began studying anatomy and physiology, discovering germs, and developing drugs and surgical techniques. It allowed them to diagnose and treat illness better.
Mercury was thought to cure all ills, and urine was used to check for diseases. Some physicians even practiced occult healing, believing it had curative powers.
However, the most important development was the rise of the scientific method, which would eventually lead to even greater medical advances.
While medieval medical methods and practices might seem primitive by today’s standards, many of the ideas and treatments developed during this time period laid the foundation for modern medicine.
Through trial and error, medieval physicians and surgeons contributed to our understanding of the human body and how to treat illnesses and injuries.
Even though medical knowledge has progressed significantly since then, we still use many of the same basic principles developed during the Middle Ages.