Modern medicine has enabled us to combat illnesses that would’ve killed us fifty years ago but are now viewed as a mere annoyance. It has enabled us to turn deadly diseases into chronically manageable ones with the right combination of diet, medication, or therapies. We are very fortunate, imagine living hundreds of years ago when there were no tetanus shots, no antibiotics, and the common cold could kill you. These were common problems to people dependant on medieval medicine. In her book, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science, author, teacher and historic interpreter, Toni Mount, looks at the history, and development of medicine from the Middle Ages to Early Modern period.
Pre-nineteenth century medicine relied on centuries old beliefs that had hardly changed from ancient times. Following the medical treatises of Galen (130-210 AD) and Hippocrates (460-370 BC), mixed with a strong dose of Christian belief, physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries used the same system of treatment for close to 2,000 years. But why? Many people know that Medieval and Tudor medicine stemmed from ancient texts but why not later ones? Mount answers this intriguing question: because of the original sin of Eve eating the apple from the tree in the Garden of Eden, consecutive generations after Adam and Eve were less intelligent and lost more knowledge with each passing generation. Therefore, medieval writers believed looking to the past for medical knowledge was the key because Classical writers were closer to Adam and Eve and therefore retained more knowledge.
Mount begins her book with a history of how medieval medicine developed. The earliest doctors were monks with no formal schooling in universities but who may have attended medical school taught in Greek based on Galen and Hippocrates’ teaching. What’s interesting about early medicine is that there was a distinct separation between physicians, barber surgeons and apothecaries. How did this come to pass? In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that while monks and priests could employ medical theories and treat patients, they could not practice as surgeons because they were forbidden to draw blood, thus leaving this practice to laymen and women. This ban included human dissection, which was forbidden for centuries, leaving early physicians reliant on animal dissection to figure out what was going on inside the human body. This led to a host of problems since animals, like pigs, (which were commonly used as examples) were not biologically the same as humans.
Medical universities sprouted in the twelfth and eleventh centuries but were still Church run so they were more focused on theory than practical knowledge. Up until the seventeenth century, men still had to take some form of minor Holy Orders to be admitted into a university. The Medieval belief on illness was that it was due to sin, so to cure an ill person was to risk God’s wrath for interfering in his divine punishment. Many physicians were religious men and tried to cure the soul, versus treating the actual illness. Prayer and miracles were accepted by the medical community in the Middle Ages as legitimate forms of healing. It was unquestioned, and generally believed that sometimes, prayer and miracles from relics and pilgrimages were the patient’s best chance of recovery. Another medieval school of thought was that God had given physicians the means to cure the sick and to not use his gifts was going against God’s intentions.
So how did you prevent yourself from becoming ill? Naturally, by not committing sin! Activities like pilgrimage were believed to be a form of prevention (and cure) for illness. The more arduous the journey, the more credit your soul got in heaven. Badges gained from pilgrimage were later kept for use as charms to ward off evil and illness. If you were too sick to go yourself, you could send a proxy representative in your stead and still reap the benefits of pilgrimage. If you died, all was not lost, your soul still received posthumous benefits from the journey. It was an incredible system they had going in this period!
You could also pray to a local saint, or a patron saint associated with a specific trade or purpose, or on a saint’s feast day that fell closest to your birthday to stave off illness, or seek a cure for one. Medieval medical practice, when entwined with religion, was a complicated mine field.
Another interesting point Mount touched on in her book was that the Black Death, which decimated Europe in the fourteenth century. She noted that the term wasn’t coined until the nineteenth century by Elizabeth Penrose (1780-1837). She discussed why the Black Death remains a contentious topic amongst scholars. There are various theories as to what kind of disease the Black Death was, with some scholars arguing it may have been a hemorrhagic fever or an early Ebola strain, and not Bubonic plague. Mount also touched on the deadly ‘sweating sickness’ that rapidly killed its victims, sometimes in a matter of hours. She posits that it may have been an early version of the deadly 1993 Hanta virus.
I loved this book for the fact that it covered some truly strange, and humorous medical practices during the Medieval and Tudor period that sounded more like a Dungeons&Dragons spell than a real cure. Mount cites several of these strange remedies in the book, like this one to cure whooping cough:
Take a caterpillar, wrap it in a small bag of muslin, and hang the bag around the neck of the affected child. The caterpillar will die and the child will be cured. Or pour a bowl of milk and get a ferret to lap from the bowl. After the child drinks the rest of the milk, she will recover.
She compiled all sorts of utterly bizarre cures for illnesses. Some were grim, and some made me laugh. Here is a remedy for menstrual cramps:
A remedy for women who suffered from dysmenorrhoea (painful periods) required taking a cat, cutting off its head, removing its innards and laying the still warm body of the feline on the painful belly (from the Fifteenth-century Leechbook, recipe 238, p. 89).
Think that’s gruesome? If you had gout, it was even worse:
To cure gout. Boil a red-haired dog alive in oil until it falls apart. Then add worms, hog’s marrow and herbs. Apply the mixture to the a effected parts. Or take a frog when neither sun nor moon is shining. Cut off its hind legs and wrap them in deer skin. Apply the right to the right and the left to the left foot of the gouty person and without doubt he will be healed.
Did women really smear dead cats on their bellies thinking it would cure cramps? Did people really boil dogs alive to get rid of gout? It sounds pretty revolting, and like a lot of work, yet it’s also interesting to see what people believed would help them get well hundreds of years ago.
Mount finished the book by showing the slow decline in the belief in Galenic and Hippocratic teaching. Medicine eventually moved away from charms, bizarre recipes, bleeding, astrology, and the Four Humors theory, and inched its way towards modern medical practice and science based study. The role of the church in medicine, women practitioners, regulation, malpractice suits, charlatans and fraudsters, and the stories behind key physicians in medical history are all covered here. Mount tackles so much material in a truly enjoyable way without getting bogged down by dry details. It’s a fascinating account, peppered with many wonderful cases and stories that range from gag inducing, eyebrow raising, to hysterically funny. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. If you’re remotely curious about the history of medicine after the ancients, Medieval Medicine is a great place to start.