The modern medicine that we enjoy today has been preceded by centuries of trial and error. In medieval Europe, the ‘cure’ for deadly illnesses was often worse than the malady, with remedies such as mercury pills and lotions slowly poisoning the afflicted party to death, while treatments such as bleeding worsened the patient’s condition.
Said treatments were usually administered by doctors and healers with varying levels of experience, depending on what you could afford. However, disease doesn’t observe socio-economic delineations: the Black Death in England from 1348-1350 wiped out nearly a third of the population and left doctors at a loss.
Even in non-plague times when a mere scratch could spell infection and death, the very presence of a doctor often suggested that the end was nigh, and mourning preparations would begin. That’s if you even sought one out: it was widely assumed that diseases of the body were the result of sins of the soul, and that prayer and meditation was all that was required.
Would you want to be treated by a medieval doctor?
Most doctors had little training
Around 85% of medieval people were peasants, which consisted of anyone from serfs who were legally tied to the land they worked, to freemen, who were generally enterprising smallholders who could make considerable amounts of money. Personal wealth therefore affected what people could afford in times of sickness or injury.
Not all medical practitioners were trained: in fact, most had no formal training at all beyond ideas and traditions being passed down from generation to generation. For the poorest of the poor, local ‘wise women’ were known for their abilities to create homemade herbal medicines and potions. Apothecaries were also an option for those able to buy rudimentary drugs.
For those needing an amputation or dental care, a barber-surgeon or general surgeon could pull teeth, let blood or chop off limbs. Only the wealthiest could afford a physician, who, at the highest level, would have studied abroad in Europe at renowned institutions such as the University of Bologna.
For the wealthy, the physician would be summoned by a servant who would then answer questions about their master. This would allow the doctor to arrive at an early diagnosis and maintain an air of wisdom around the patient.
Medical beliefs were rooted in Aristotle and Hippocrates
The majority of medieval doctors believed that illnesses were caused by an imbalance in the four humours, a teaching which was based in Aristotelian and Hippocratic methods. It was believed that the body of the patient was made up of corresponding elements from within the universe.
Doctors would pay attention to a patient’s bodily fluids, made up of yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air) and phlegm (water), and diagnose them by looking closely at their blood, urine and stools. It was also commonplace for doctors to taste a patient’s urine as a means of diagnosis, call for a barber-surgeon to bleed the patient, or even apply leeches.
It was believed that astrology influenced health
The signs of the zodiac were a major influence on a range of medieval medicine, from folk medicine and pagan beliefs to formal medical education. Even the most prestigious universities emphasised the vital importance of astrology in medicine: for example, the University of Bologna required three years of study of the stars and planets, compared to four years of medical study.
The astrological signs of the zodiac were also thought to correspond to the humours and parts of the body. The planets and other celestial bodies also played a part, with the sun supposedly representing the heart, Mars the arteries, Venus the kidneys, and so on. The physician would also take note of which sign the moon was in when the symptoms first occurred, and adjust their diagnosis and treatment was as a result.
Mental illness was stigmatised
Mental disorders were generally regarded as visitations from Satan or one of his servants. They supposedly entered the body because of witches, warlocks, demons, imps, evil spirits and fairies. Many medieval physicians were also priests who believed that the only spiritual cure came through prayer, incantations or even exorcisms. The brutal treatment of trepanning, which involved boring a hole in the head to allow evil spirits to exit the body, was sometimes used.
Lay physicians did recognise that there could be other causes for mental disorders, though these causes were generally attributed to an imbalance of the four humours, and treated as such with bleeding, purging and laxatives.
Some physicians even attributed mental illness to malfunctioning organs such as the heart, spleen and liver, and women were generally thought to be more prone to all types of mental illness because of the menstrual cycle disrupting the balance of the humours.
Dental care was brutal
Islamic physicians were the first to develop treatments for common dental problems such as cavities, which were treated by filing away the decay and filling the cavity. These treatments made their way to Europe and became available to the wealthy. By the 14th century, false teeth were common among the rich.
Those without the means to visit a professional dentist would visit a barber-surgeon to have their teeth pulled out. Charms and potions were used against toothache, while gargles relied on wine as a main ingredient to ease pain.
Syphilis was rife
By the end of the 15th century, syphilis was widespread in Europe and was one of the most dreaded diseases of the age. Judged by moralists to be a punishment for sexual licentiousness, syphilis was known as the ‘Great Pox’ (though the English often referred to it as the French Pox), and it was treated with mercury.
Though some physicians recognised that mercury was toxic and unsuitable for oral consumption, it was still widely prescribed as an ointment for a variety of skin diseases too.
Mercury was also believed to be an effective treatment against an imbalance of the four humours and was prescribed for melancholia, constipation, parasites and even the flu. Of course, rather than have a positive effect, mercury steadily poisoned its unwitting victims: the cure was even worse than the affliction.