Related Web Sites
Cloister Herb Garden
Discusses the uses of herbs, including medicinal, during
the Middle Ages.
By Boccacio, at the Medieval Sourcebook site, this
document describes the beginnings of the Black
Medicine and Biology
An exhibit on medieval medicine from the Vatican
Medieval Miracles of Healing
An essay on the connection between spiritual healing and
disease in the middle ages.
Medicine was often a risky business. Bloodletting was a
popular method of restoring a patient's health and
"humors." Early surgery, often done by barbers
without anesthesia, must have been excruciating.
Who was Treated and Who
Did the Treating
Medical treatment was available mainly to the wealthy,
and those living in villages rarely had the help of
doctors, who practiced mostly in the cities and courts.
Remedies were often herbal in nature, but also included
ground earthworms, urine, and animal excrement. Many
medieval medical manuscripts contained recipes for
remedies that called for hundreds of therapeutic
substances--the notion that every substance in nature
held some sort of power accounts for the enormous variety
of substances. Many treatments were administered by
people outside the medical tradition. Coroners' rolls
from the time reveal how lay persons often made
sophisticated medical judgments without the aid of
medical experts. From these reports we also learn about
some of the major causes of death.
Natural functions, such as sneezing, were thought to be
the best way of maintaining health. When there was a
build-up of any one humor, or body fluid, it could be
disposed of through sweat, tears, feces, or urine. When
these natural systems broke down, illness occurred.
Medieval doctors stressed prevention, exercise, a good
diet, and a good environment. One of the best diagnostic
tools was uroscopy, in which the color of the patient's
urine was examined to determine the treatment. Other
diagnostic aids included taking the pulse and collecting
blood samples. Treatments ranged from administering
laxatives and diuretics to fumigation, cauterization, and
the taking of hot baths and/or herbs.
Performed as a last resort, surgery was known to be
successful in cases of breast cancer, fistula,
hemorrhoids, gangrene, and cataracts, as well as
tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck (scrofula).
The most common form of surgery was bloodletting; it was
meant to restore the balance of fluids in the body. Some
of the potions used to relieve pain or induce sleep
during the surgery were themselves potentially lethal.
One of these consisted of lettuce, gall from a castrated
boar, briony, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice--the
hemlock juice could easily have caused death.