Medieval Health

Superstition and ignorance reigned during the Middle Ages, a time when characters we now consider to be simply from fairy tales; pixies, trolls, hobgoblins and so on, were thought to truly exist. Health was controlled by the stars, and affliction was a sign of impurity of the soul-a curse from God.

Disease was a constant concern, as was infection from injuries. Hygiene was not always a priority and medieval diets were lacking in vital nutrition. Barbers doubled as surgeons, and a good bleeding was often the cure prescribed.

Medieval science progressed slowly, and treatments for the sick were quite often out of reach, especially for the poor. But little by little, doctors were learning information that led to better cures, and understandings of how diseases were transmitted.

Hospitals began to be constructed, and schools established for those wishing to practice medicine. Superstition remained, and medieval science certainly did not have all the answers. Information lost from the burning of the library at Alexandria by Christian zealots was slowly being rediscovered.


Chapters

  1. 1. Doctors
  2. 2. Medicine
  3. 3. Diseases
  4. 4. Black Death

Doctors

Medieval doctors often found themselves less subservient to the Church than to astrology and numerology. Constellations and the alignment of the planets were assumed to have direct influence of the human body, thought to be comprised of four “humors” and three “spirits.”

Doctors may have attended courses at an early school of medicine, with the most famous medieval medical school found in Salerno, Spain. After five years of study and two exams, a medieval student could earn a license to practice medicine. Medieval surgical instruments included scissors, razors, lancets, needles and speculums.

Physicians were recognized as a professional class in 1215 and they soon began to form their own guilds. As more and more doctors began their practices health and disease became more of a public concern.

Medical textbooks in the Middle Ages were few and very precious. These writings wound their way from the Middle East to Spain. Ancient Greek texts were first translated to Arabic, then by Jewish translators into Latin. It is difficult to know how much knowledge was lost or erroneous from these many translations.

There was a preference by many lords and by the wealthy to see doctors from the orient. It was assumed that their knowledge was far greater than that of western science, but evidence of this is scant.

Medicine

Arabic anatomical and pharmaceutical knowledge, far greater in scope than that of medieval Europe’s learning, was quickly assimilated. However, practical anatomy, viewed best through dissection of corpses, was rarely studied.

Treatment varied from physician to physician, but some practices were adopted by much of the continent. Isolation of the sick and contagious was commonplace and possibly the greatest step taken in medieval medicine.

Hospitals began to be built in Europe during the 13th century. These early buildings were constructed of whitewashed wood, replaced later with four-story, grand structures with marble-columns. These hospitals rivaled some palaces of the day.

Bleeding and the use of leeches to draw “bad blood” from the patient were typical. Some surgeries were performed to cure patients of hernias, cataracts, for the removal of gallstones. Surgery was often more precarious than the actual problem. Folk cures and poultices made from herbs were options for the peasant class. There were those who would risk being called “witch” to provide these remedies, although many found themselves tied to a burning stake.

When doctors’ treatments failed, the Church was often called to exorcise demons and say prayers and incantations over the patient.

Diseases

While wounds and injuries were the main reason medieval society sought the services of a doctor, these physicians also treated a variety of ailments and disease.

Rough wool worn close to the skin by peasants led to numerous and widespread skin diseases. Scarcity of fruits, vegetables and proteins needed for a healthy diet led to maladies of the intestinal tract and scurvy.

Winter was especially hard on medieval society, as cold, drafty dwellings led to numerous cases of deadly pneumonia. Even when the weather was warm, improper sanitation made typhoid a constant problem.

Mental illness was also widespread during the Middle Ages. Injuries received to babies during the birthing process often led to brain trauma. Little could be done for these people, but there were no institutions for them and many were accepted into society. Others, however, would have crosses shaved into the backs of their heads, or be tied to pews in the church in hopes that mass would bring them relief.

Leprosy remained the most feared disease of the Middle Ages, until the Black Death, that is. This disease was rampant throughout Western Europe and leper colonies could be found everywhere. In France, alone, there were 2,000 such colonies in the 11th-13th centuries.

Black Death

A medieval nightmare-a time of horror. Imagine walking down the street, and every fourth person you saw would die within three years. The Black Death, ravaging medieval Europe from late 1347 through early 1351 wiped out nearly one-fourth of the continent’s inhabitants. Medieval cities fared much worse. With their narrow streets making transmission of the disease much easier, nearly half of the populations of some larger cities perished from this epidemic.

The Black Death’s origins were from Asia, where it decimated the population there as well, and was brought to Western Europe along trading routes, first arriving in Sicily in 1347. This disease was spread primarily through rats and fleas.

The disease attacked lymph, respiratory and/or circulatory systems and there was nearly a 100% mortality rate for those infected. The Church’s stranglehold on society left many feeling that this was a plague from God, and that doctors would be of little use. A chilling rhyme would evolve from the symptoms of the dying and sentiments of the living…

“Ring around the rosie,
A pocketful of posie,
Ashes, Ashes,
All fall down.”

Attempts to avoid the disease ranged from constant supplication to God, to eating fine meats, drinking fine wines, and filling the mind with thought of anything, other than death. Doctors tried to treat victims with everything from valerian root and moonwort, to arsenic and brimstone.

The Black Death had a steamroller effect throughout all society. Multitudes of houses and barns infested with rats were left vacant, making it impossible to collect rents. Unused mills fell into disrepair, making it impossible to grind wheat for flour in some areas. There was a resurgence of the disease later in the century, but not as many people were infected.