10 Facts About Healthcare in the Middle Ages

Tristan Hughes

3 mins

02 Nov 2018

From having a hole bored into your head to placing leaves under your pillow at night, medieval healthcare was weird and wonderful. We are fortunate to live in a world today where anaesthetics are available, but back in medieval times people were not so lucky.

Here are 10 facts about medicine and healthcare in medieval times.

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1. Cataract surgery in the Early Middle Ages was very painful

Surgeons used a painful process called ‘needling’. With no anaesthetics, the doctor inserted a needle into the edge of a person’s cornea.

2. Some Anglo-Saxon medicinal remedies have been proven as effective cures…

A page from Bald’s Leechbook, an Old-English medical text. Credit: Cockayne, Oswald. 1865. Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England / Commons.

This includes the use of garlic, wine and oxgall for an eye salve.

3. …but they also had remedies for elves, devils and night goblins

It is a fascinating example of how there was little distinction between magic and medicine in Anglo-Saxon times.

4. A surgeon might choose to bore a hole in your head

A painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation. Credit: Prado National Museum / Commons.

Originating from ancient times, the method was called trepanning. In medieval times it was practised as a cure for various illnesses: epilepsy, migraines and various mental disorders for instance. Trepanning was used as late as the 20th century as a medical technique.

5. Some medical remedies featured charms

They required the invalid to write something down, eat a piece of writing, or eat from a vessel bearing a special inscription.

6. Much medieval medicine originated in ancient Greece

The ancient Greek physician Galen became referred to as the “Medical Pope of the Middle Ages” while Hippocrates was also important.

A painting of Galen dissecting a monkey by Veloso Salgado. Credit: Nova Medical School.

7. Plant and animal-based remedies featured prominently in medieval
medicine…

Parsley was recorded as the remedy for a snake-bite.

8. …especially rosemary

“Rosmarino”, or rosemary, a rosette-like structure of branches with opposite leaves and small axial flowers atop a thick stem, or trunk, green with a brown trunk and small blue flowers. Credit: Commons.

In medieval times, Rosemary was considered a wonderplant that could cure various illnesses and keep someone healthy. In the Zibaldone da Canal, an early fourteenth-century Venetian book, 23 uses of Rosemary are listed for various uses such as,

take the leaves of the rosemary and put it in your bed, and you will not have nightmares.

9. It was believed that visiting Thomas Becket’s shrine could cure an illness

The murder of Thomas Becket. Credit: James William Edmund Doyle / Commons.

Situated in Canterbury Cathedral, Saint Thomas Becket’s tomb became the most popular shrine in England during medieval times. It was also much easier to reach than making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

10. English and French monarchs claimed they had healing hands

It was called the royal touch and it continued down into the Renaissance Period.

Charles II performs the royal touch. Credit: R. White / Commons.

Header image credit: Physician letting blood from a patient. British Library / Commons.