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Updated 19 September 2013

Weird medieval remedies

Not feeling so good? Try bloodletting or eating bone marrow mixed with sweat. That’s what your local medical practitioner may have prescribed a few hundred years ago.

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Science develops more innovative and complicated medical procedures every year. Take keyhole surgery, a relatively new technique that allows surgeons to perform operations through tiny incisions in the chest and abdomen. A few years ago, this procedure would have sounded like the stuff of sci-fi films. Today, it’s just another treatment option.

But a few centuries ago, medicine was more of a guessing game than a science.

The bad old days

Nothing makes you appreciate the present, like the past. Especially when that “past” is the Middle Ages (between the 5th and 15th centuries) – a time when few people lived to see their 40th birthdays. During this dark period, relatively little was known about human anatomy and curing common ailments, so medieval medicine was a dangerous mix of tradition and religious influences, as well as ideas from a few surviving Greek and Roman texts.

One of the underlying principles of many medical practices was the theory of humours, which proposed that wellbeing was based on the balance of the four humours, or bodily fluids, namely: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each humour was thought to correspond with a particular season and personality.

black bile cold dry season melancholic
phlegm cold wet season phlegmatic
blood warm wet season sanguine
yellow bile warm dry season choleric


It was believed that too much of any one of these humours would upset the balance and cause illness. So whilst an excess of black bile was thought to produce a melancholy temperament, an excess of blood was thought to produce a sanguine, or passionate, temper.

A popular remedy for “restoring balance” was bloodletting – the practice of making a cut on the skin (sometimes a deep cut, sometimes a scratch) and then placing a heated cup onto the wound to suck out the blood.

The problem with this painful “cure”, of course, was that patients often bled to death, or became more ill as a result of infection.

Unhealthy times

Medieval towns were overrun with rats and refuse, which was thrown out of windows to the street below. Open sewers sometimes flowed through the streets, creating an ideal breeding ground for diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever. As towns grew, the hygiene levels worsened.

Infections were spread by physicians and surgeons, who didn’t wash their hands or sterilise tools before operating on a patient or handling medicine.

Because people had no understanding of germs and bacteria, it was commonly believed that disease was spread by bad odours, and that counteracting these odours could prevent contamination. During the time of the bubonic plague, then, which swept through England in the 14th century, doctors wore masks stuffed with garlic in order to “neutralise” the air whilst treating patients. Incense and aromatic plants were also used in the hopes of warding off disease.

The local barber

There was little consensus on medical theories, and no medical regulations. This meant that almost anyone could practice medicine. But one of the most important practitioners of the day was the local barber, who doubled up as a surgeon.

Because of their steady hands, barbers would perform procedures that were considered to be beneath the rank of physicians, who were university educated, expensive, and only really accessible to the wealthy. These part-time surgeons were commonly called upon to extract teeth and perform operations for hernias, gallstones, or gangrene.

The modern barber’s pole dates back to these times. Bandages were wound around a pole and hung at the door to advertise the dentist’s business of bloodletting. Later, stripes were painted on a wooden pole in imitation of these bandages, and thus the traditional barber’s pole was born.

General anaesthetics were not invented until the 19th century, so patients were sometimes given a mixture of medicinal herbs to induce sleep before surgery. A mixture called dwale, for instance, consisted of lettuce, gall from a boar, bryony, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice. This herbal mixture was as dangerous as the surgery itself, as ingesting small amounts of opium and hemlock juice can be fatal.

Traditional medicine

Traditional potions and practices were based on superstition and had little, if any, medicinal benefits. Some were the result of mistaken assumptions. If a sick person were prescribed a particular remedy, and then got better, for instance, it was assumed the remedy was effective.

Remedies you might not want to try

  • rheumatism – wear a donkey skin
  • deafness – mix the gall of a hare with the grease of a fox. Warm the mixture and place it in the ear
  • baldness – shave head and smear it with the grease of a fox or bear. Or, smear the head with beetles’ juice
  • jaundice – swallow nine lice mixed with ale each morning, for a week
  • asthma – swallow young frogs
  • for a swelling – take a knife and cut out the infected part
  • gout – boil a red-haired dog in oil, add worms, pig’s marrow, and herbs. Make a mixture and rub it into the affected area
  • ringworm – wash hair in a male’s urine
  • internal bleeding – wear a dried toad in a bag around the neck

If you were too squeamish to try any of these techniques, you could always go on a pilgrimage. Many medieval people believed that diseases were punishments from God, and could only be cured through faith and prayer.

All bad?

Some medieval herbal remedies were, in fact, effective. Aloe vera, for instance, was used to soothe wounds and burns, and still is today. And if you’re keen to try a medieval headache remedy, drink warm camomile tea and then lie down on rosemary and lavender-scented pillows for 15 minutes – natural, yet effective.

It was also during this period that Europe’s first organised medical school, Schola Medica Salernitana, was established in Southern Italy. But, although the school promoted rational thought and emphasised Greek and Latin medical heritage, it was not until the Renaissance that medical practices were regulated and real advancement was made.

Until then, bizarre medieval remedies took many lives, and turned many stomachs.

(Sources: PubMed central, Tales of the middle ages, Horrible Histories, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

(Photo: Medieval drugs by Shutterstock)


 
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