Medieval medicine is a bizarre and almost magical thing. It’s as rich in detailed botanical descriptions as it is in off-the-wall remedies, like powdered owls and toad goo.
Germs hadn’t been discovered yet, and the science behind medicine was mostly a mystery. And yet, alongside all the quackery, there was an emerging medical infrastructure that performed surgery and administered analgesics (more on this later).
One of the things we’re hoping to excavate with the help of our crowdfunders are the remains of a medieval infirmary run by priests at Leiston Abbey, to help us better understand the role of religious institutions in caring (or not) for their local community and the types of medicine they practiced.
To get everyone ready, we’ve prepared a series of posts to get your knowledge of medieval medicine up to snuff. So let’s get cracking with the basics: how to pass yourself off as a medieval doctor in six simple steps.
Divine punishment is widely thought to be a reason for sickness at this time. The church teaches aught that ailments are brought down by God in return for sinful behaviour – this helps keep their congregation in line since the cure for illness was piety! Being able to tell the patient that the reason they are sick is their own fault is quite helpful since medical knowledge is a bit lacking at this time.
We hope you aren’t squeamish! Medieval physicians also believed the the four humours of the body (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) to be the components of sickness and health, which cause illness if the body has too much or too little of any of them. This theory lead to treatments like inducing sweating or vomiting and also one of the most popular medical treatment of medieval times – bloodletting. To pass yourself off as a medieval doctor, recommend it not just as a remedy, but a regular treatment to promote health.
And yet, other surgeries existed too, like trepanation, cauterization and amputation. The problem was that ignorance surrounding germs made these procedures highly dangerous.
As a physician you’re going to have to be very comfortable with bodily fluids. In addition to the humours, urine is a trusted diagnostic tool in the medieval period. Changes in colour, smell and even (ew) taste are attributed to various illnesses – don’t worry it’s all very civilized there’s a screen between you and the patient and everything! Urine became the main method of diagnosis, so if you can figure out how to use this colour wheel you’ll be well on your way to being a medieval doctor.
Since places of healing are often in remote places you’ll have to learn the sorts of treatments that might be available in your surroundings. Herbal remedies are used to varying success in this period – there is a lot of knowledge about particular plants that can be used to promote health, other ‘remedies’ that involve ingredients like lead and mercury are used less successfully (go figure).
There are a lack of physicians for common people at this time (how nice that you’re showing an interest) as well as restrictions on how much medical treatment religious men (who provided treatment as charity) are allowed to perform. This gives rise to the profession of the barber-surgeon who performs minor surgeries like bloodletting and tooth extraction in addition to cutting hair (he already has the sharp razors so why not?).
If you make enough guess you’ll have to be right eventually! Bad smells, bad luck and the misalignment of planets are some of the causes put forth by medieval physicians who try to explain the mysteries of the body any way they can in a time before germs, disinfectant, microscopes, and x-rays.
Despite ignorance or misplaced beliefs, there have been many incredible discoveries made about the medical practices in the medieval period: Stay tuned to find out about them!
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