By Danièle Cybulskie
Like modern people, medieval people dealt with minor ailments and injuries without immediately calling for the doctor. For these minor medical issues, there were some natural remedies that were useful to have on hand pretty much all the time. Here are five things that would have been a handy part of a medieval “first aid kit”, and that (incidentally) science is slowly proving can still be counted on to work in a pinch.
1. Willow Bark
Willow bark has been used since ancient times all over the world to deal with pain and fever, especially headaches. According to The University of Maryland Medical Center, ancient Greeks were advised to “chew on the bark to reduce fever and inflammation”. Willow bark actually does work to dull pain because it contains salicylic acid/salicin, which is very close to acetylsalicylic acid: aspirin. The UMMC credits the bark’s natural flavonoids for its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as other natural chemicals that need to be studied further. Because it’s pretty easily available, it’s likely that this was the most popular go-to painkiller for medieval people.
Another medicine known to the ancients, honey was used on medieval wounds like the arrow wound the future Henry V received in the face. Honey was a good choice to use for such wounds, as it turns out, because of its antibiotic properties. In Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine, Toni Mount notes,
The antimicrobial activity in most honeys is due to the presence of hydrogen peroxide, which inhibits the growth of bacteria and its high sugar content (high osmolarity), which draws the fluids out of any bacteria present, so they shrivel and die.
Mount also points out honey’s unique ability to bind a wound closed (because it is so sticky) while keeping it from drying out. Besides honey’s ability to disinfect wounds, it was also handy to have on hand because it tastes good, making it a frequently-mentioned ingredient in all sorts of medieval remedies. Because it was so often used in cooking (as well as making mead), honey would have been readily available for medical use.
A trick that medieval people used to stop bleeding in minor cuts was to pack them with cobwebs (like those above, this is also an aboriginal remedy). Like honey, cobwebs are sticky, which helps hold the cut together, and may also help spread the chemical goodness of the web over a greater surface, as scientists at the University of Akron have theorized. According to Mount, “spider’s webs have natural antiseptic and antifungal properties to combat infection,” and they also contain vitamin K, which assists blood in clotting. The spider’s web must be clean, however, and hopefully spider-free.
Moss is another ancient global remedy that has been used for thousands of years to soak up blood, from menstrual blood to wounds. A particularly great moss used in medieval first aid (as well as single malt whiskey) is sphagnum moss (dried, decayed sphagnum moss creates peat). Mount says,
This bog moss, found in Scotland, Ireland and western England is capable of soaking up fluids or discharge from a wound far better than cotton wool and deodorises it as well. These benefits would have been obvious, but what couldn’t be known to the surgeons of history was that certain penicillin moulds live in the sphagnum moss, giving it antibiotic properties.
Sphagnum moss, then, not only cleans up the blood, but kills bacteria, which would have been critical, especially in the case of battle wounds. Sphagnum moss, or “blood moss”, was so well known and frequently used, that it was still being used as recently as World War I for sanitary napkins.
5. Live Snails
For a minor cut or burn, a medieval person could turn to the humble snail for relief. As Mount says, given snails’ constant travel over rough ground, it makes sense for them to have chemical aids to help them treat minor scratches, and (as it turns out) they have these chemicals in abundance. According to Mount,
Recent research has shown that snail slime contains antioxidants, antiseptic, anaesthetic, anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and antiviral properties, as well as collagen and elastin, vital for skin repair.
Snails, it seems, are the answer to many a skin complaint – a veritable fountain of youth for skin. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that “Snail Gel” is available today, touted as the answer to all manner of problems. If, that is, you can get past the fact that it’s literally slime.
For more handy, readable information on medieval medicine, check out Toni Mount’s book Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Can cobwebs be medicine? Photo by IDS.photos / Flickr