It’s no wonder people died so young during this period in history, you think? Many medieval medical treatments were certainly barbaric – but others, amazing.
#1. Bloodletting was used to treat many illnesses in medieval times - including which of the following heat related conditions?
Doctors during the medieval period believed that the physical and mental health of the individual depended on one of four elements or “humors” that permeated the body. These were blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. This belief system, which originated in Iran, and spread out from there, was well and truly the go-to solution for many health issues during the medieval period as well. A fever or an upset stomach, because both tended to be associated with heat, required that this heat (the blood humor) should be released from the body by bleeding the unfortunate patient – opening up a vein and letting the amount of blood the doctor stipulated flow out into a bowl. Fortunately, another alternative to this – which you can imagine many people chose – was drinking a mix of wine into which powdered ginger and mint had been mixed. Interestingly, even today, people consume ginger for different health problems, including as a drink to deal with nausea.
#2. One interesting medieval treatment, for minor wounds or burns, required the application of which product from a creepy crawly?
This treatment was fascinating, and used in some countries even today when more advanced medical products are unavailable. Spider webs were collected and allowed to soak in a mix of oil and vinegar, before being applied to the wound. Although people would not have known HOW it worked in medieval times – only that it did – we know in the modern era that spider web contains a natural antiseptic. Once the mix of the oil, vinegar and web had dried out over the wound, it formed a hard protective layer on the injury, allowing the wound below to heal. So amazing, you’ll agree. An alternative to the use of a spider web for the treatment of wounds required the spreading of horse dung on the injury. This ancient cure, though undoubtedly making people recoil today, was also based on trust, rather than knowledge, but it is believed by scientists of the modern age that fresh horse manure may help produce a type of antibiotic. Recent research indicates that mushrooms that thrive in this product definitely do have antibiotic properties.
#3. This really sounds horrifying. How did medieval doctors treat eye cataracts?
This, of course, in its basic form is how surgeons today remove the cloudy lens over the eye that obstructs the vision of patients. The difference is that today’s patients are drugged to such an extent during surgery, they remember nothing of the procedure. Medieval patients did not have the benefit of this unawareness. Or did they? Though it has long been believed that surgery was carried out on wide awake, screaming in agony, patients through the ages, there were some alternatives to this. One such was the use of opium, known in Mesopotamia, several thousands years before the common era. This plant had the nickname “plant of joy” because of its abilities to deaden pain. A mix of wine and cannabis essence was also used to ease the agony of surgical patients in other countries, before opium was introduced there. So the image of a medieval doctor assailing one’s eyeball is not quite as horrific as thought.
Even more interestingly, another medieval option – this time to treat general eye infections – was a mix of onion and garlic juice, cow bile and wine. After allowing it to brew for nine days, this was then applied to to the eye – with a feather. Researchers copying this recipe in modern times – minus the applicator – have found that the mix does indeed counteract MRSA (staph) bacteria. Don’t even think of trying this for yourself, however!
#4. It was not all impressive ancient medical knowledge in medieval times. In which pungent way did surgeons treat migraines in this historic era?
Placing garlic inside the skull of an unfortunate patient suffering from ongoing migraines, wasn’t just depositing a clove into a convenient orifice. It actually involved removing bone from the patient’s skull (known as trepanning) to expose the brain below. This of course usually had fatal consequences when infection set in. When it became known to medieval surgeons that garlic was somehow effective against infections, this treatment still involved removing part of the skull – and then placing garlic into the wound. It was left there for approximately 15 hours, before being removed. The wound was then allowed to dry out for a couple of days – exposed to the air – after which the hole was plugged with a butter soaked cloth. Then, to really finish the patient off if he or she still survived, the next step in curing migraines was cauterising the wound with a red hot iron. Perhaps the real cure for medieval migraine sufferers, then, was to never complain about a headache.
#5. You couldn't win which ever way you turned in medieval times if you suffered from depression. What was one of its deadly treatments?
Depression was known as melancholia in medieval times, and it was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile in the system, one of the four humor beliefs medical personnel were so reluctant to abandon. Of all the plants to pick as a treatment for this condition, the choice descended on peonies. The roots of these flowers were brewed up into a tea to be consumed by melancholic patients – and those roots are poisonous. The flower is lovely to gaze upon, and an infusion brewed from its fallen petals is considered a treat in China, but boiling the roots as a cure was unfortunate. Consuming same causes nausea, tremors and a dangerously rapid heartbeat. Other treatments for melancholia in medieval times, because it was believed to be caused by demons and witches, included starving, drowning and beating the patient. Drowning, you would imagine, instantly cured the condition.
#6. Leprosy is a disease that has plagued mankind for thousands of years. One of its, surprisingly gentle, treatments in medieval times was the application of which spread?
Treacle is a form of syrup that is a by-product of the refining of sugar. It has a rather pleasant flavour and is even used in various recipes today as a sugar substitute. In medieval times, as far as the medical fraternity went, treacle was used to treat the sores on people suffering from leprosy, and whenever the plague reared its ugly head, applied as well on the swollen nodes of that disease. Once more here we have to acknowledge the wisdom garnered from the past. Both treacle and honey have been used over the centuries (honey more so) to treat wounds, because, as we know today, both contain curative, anti-bacterial properties. Honey was also used to treat conditions such as tuberculosis, worms, piles and fatigue. Sadly though, if honey didn’t help in the case of leprosy, patients were treated with applications of poisonous mercury to the skin, or bathed in blood, or, here we go again, blood-letting once more. With the benefit of our medical knowledge today, it’s easy to laugh at many of these old cures – and I do – but desperate people will try anything to retain their hold on the precious gift of life.
#7. Fittingly enough for the end of a quiz, which end product was used frequently in medieval times to clean wounds?
Medieval doctors utilised urine frequently in the cleansing of wounds because, although they didn’t use this term, it was known to keep wounds sterile. It was also, somewhat unfortunately, believed to keep the plague at bay, and so was recommended for people to bathe in it several times a day. Urine absolutely reeks as it ages, but drinking a glass or two of this really smelly end product (known as lant) was considered to be just the thing to ward off the plague. Stale urine was also used to bleach linen, make gunpowder, tan leather and as a household cleanser, and, if you had any teeth left after living in medieval times, brushing with urine was just the thing to brighten them up. Urine, incidentally, is used in the manufacture of many prescription drugs and other products in the modern world today, so let’s give the medical specialists from so long ago a little nod of appreciation for pointing us – just sometimes – in the right direction.
#8. Various treatments, some alarming, were part and parcel of the medieval doctor's manual for dealing with epilepsy. What was the common name given to this condition?
Epilepsy, which can cause people to have seizures, depending on how the condition impacts them, is caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain. It has various causes, and today different treatments, some experimental, are used in attempts to control it. In ancient times, epilepsy was known as the “falling sickness” because the visible seizures that sometimes accompanied the illness resulted in its sufferers collapsing to the ground during the convulsive stage. Treatments used by medieval doctors were also varied, the more pleasant of which was a drink called St Paul’s Potion – assorted herbs and spices mixed with honey and wine. Magic charms and amulets were also recommended as a treatment. When all these proved ineffective, there was always bloodletting of course, or, FAR worse – declaring that epilepsy meant the patient was under the control of a demon. The treatment for this meant drilling a hole in the patient’s head to allow the demon to flee. That is of course unless the patient beat that demonic fiend out the door first.
#9. Less than appealing visually, another medieval treatment that proved to be equally effective for its antiseptic properties, was the essence of snails. Consumption of same was used to treat which complaint?
Quite possibly, medieval people may have prayed for the intervention of Saint Blaise (the patron saint for conditions of the throat) before trying this cure. Snail essence, to put it bluntly, is the slimy secretion produced by those little creatures. It’s rather miraculous that the ancients knew of the curative properties of this product (but not how or why it worked), because that secretion contains, not only antiseptic properties but also glycolic acid, a product used today in various skin creams to help maintain the skin in prime condition. How, or from where, did these people from so long ago obtain this incredible knowledge?
#10. Another deadly plant used in medieval medical treatments - gout, for example - was one believed to scream when uprooted. Can you name it?
Gout, which is a form of arthritis, can make life a misery for those who deal with it. It presents with swollen and tender joints, often red and very hot. While arthritis itself can have a painful presentation on any of the joints in the body, gout is usually associated with a swollen big toe. It was believed to be caused by an excess of phlegm humor in the system. Standard therapy for the condition in medieval times was the consumption of powdered mandrake roots mixed with wine. This root has various deadly effects on the human body. It’s an hallucinogenic for a start, causing blurred visions, headaches (don’t tell the surgeons!), rapid heartbeat, difficulty in passing urine and vomiting. It was once believed, as well, that because mandrake screamed when it was uprooted, those screams could send a person insane – or cause death. To protect oneself from hearing those deadly screams, therefore, the ears had to be blocked with mud while preparing the potion. One benefit of consuming this mixture was that, if a patient needed surgery at any time, an overdose of mandrake preparation could make them unconscious prior to the surgery. Whether they recovered, of course, was a different matter.