Health and medicine in Medieval England were very important aspects of life. For many peasants in Medieval England, disease and poor health were part of their daily life and medicines were both basic and often useless. Towns and cities were filthy and knowledge of hygiene was non-existent. The Black Death was to kill 2/3rds of England’s population between 1348 and 1350.
In 1349, Edward III complained to the Lord Mayor of London that the streets of the city were filthy:
|“Cause the human faeces and other filth lying in the streets and lanes in the city to be removed with all speed to places far distant, so that no greater cause of mortality may arise from such smells.”|
No one knew what caused diseases then. There was no knowledge of germs. Medieval peasants had been taught by the church that any illness was a punishment from God for sinful behaviour. Therefore, any illness was self-imposed – the result of an individual’s behaviour.
Other theories put forward for diseases included “humours”. It was believed that the body had four humours (fluids in our bodies) and if these became unbalanced you got ill. Doctors studied a patient’s urine to detect if there was any unbalance.
Astronomers blamed the planets going out of line
As important, no-one knew how diseases spread – the fact that people lived so close together in both villages and towns meant that contagious diseases could be rampant when they appeared; as happened with the Black Death.
Physicians were seen as skilled people but their work was based on a very poor knowledge of the human anatomy. Experiments on dead bodies were unheard of in Medieval England and strictly forbidden. Physicians charged for their services and only the rich could afford them. Their cures could be bizarre though some cures, including bleeding and the use of herbs, had some logic to them even if it was very much a hit-or-miss approach. One of the most famous physicians was John Arderne who wrote “The Art of Medicine” and who treated royalty. He was considered a master in his field but his cure for kidney stones was a hot plaster smeared with honey and pigeon dung!
Physicians would have had their own ideas as to what caused illnesses.
Those who blamed bad smells developed a ‘cure’ to make the bad smells go away.
Those who blamed bad luck would use prayers and superstitions.
Those who blamed the body’s four humours used bleeding, sweating and vomiting to restore the balance of the four humours.
When by some luck, a patient got better or simply improved, this was a sure sign that a cure worked. It also meant that the cure used would be used again. If it did not work on the next patient, this was the fault of the patient rather than of the cure.
Operations were carried out by ‘surgeons’. In fact, these men were unskilled and had other jobs such as butchers and barbers. The traditional red and white pole outside of a barber’s shop today is a throwback to the days in Medieval England when barbers did operations. The red stood for blood and the white for the bandages used at the end of an operation.
Operations could end in death as post-operative infections were common. Instruments used in an operation were not sterilised – as there was no knowledge of germs, there was no need to clean instruments used in operations. Patients might recover from small operations, such as a tooth extraction (though this could not be guaranteed), but operations that included a deep cut through the skin were very dangerous.
Some monasteries had cottage hospitals attached to them. The monks who worked in these hospitals had basic medical knowledge but they were probably the best qualified people in the country to help the poor and those who could not afford their own physician. By 1200, there may have been as many as 400 hospitals in England.
Cures from Medieval England:
Take a candle and burn it close to the tooth. The worms that are gnawing the tooth will fall out into a cup of water held by the mouth.
The cause of the Black Death according to Guy de Chauliac, a French doctor:
Three great planets, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, are all in close position. This took place in 1345. Such a coming together of planets is always a sign of wonderful, terrible or violent things to come.
For evil spirits in the head:
For this, surgeons used trepanning. This was where a surgeon cut a hole into the skull to release evil spirits trapped in the brain. The operation might also include cutting out the part of the brain that had been ‘infected’ with these evil spirits. Incredibly, people are known to have survived operations such as these as skulls have been found which show bone growth around the hole cut by a surgeon – a sign that someone did survive such an operation if only for awhile.
For general illnesses:
People were told that a pilgrimage to a holy shrine to show your love of God would cure them of illnesses especially if they had some holy water sold at the place of pilgrimage. After the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage which brought even more wealth to the city. However, more people coming to the city also increased the risk of disease being brought in.
This was when blood was drained from a certain spot in your body. The idea behind this was similar to trepanning in that it released bad blood from your body. The use of leeches was common for this but dirty knives were also used which only increased the risk to the patient.
Leeches used on royalty
This was where a physician identified that a certain part of your body was ill and it was cured by having red hot pokers put on it.
Astrology played an important part in many cures. For fever, one medicine book stated “A man suffering from fever should be bled immediately the moon passes through the middle of the sign of Gemini.”