What, exactly, did people do to remedy symptoms and illness in medieval times? I mean, have you ever thought about what would have happened had you been born in some medieval village and caught a cold, broke your leg, or, heaven forbid, had a terminal illness? I watch shows like Outlander and I shiver at the idea of what people went through without today's emergency medicine.
In fact, some medieval remedies are straight out of scenes from a terrible nightmare and, surely, killed people quicker than what ailed them to begin with, such as trepanning, a procedure where a small hole was bore out of the skull in order to relieve 'pressures', which was often used for epilepsy, migraines and mental disorders.
There was also a certain amount of blood-letting in medieval times. Opening a vein (venesection) and allowing the blood to leak out or placing leeches on the skin to draw out the blood was considered one way to draw out one's ills. It often lead only to weakness and death. It might interest you to know that a physician's desk reference in medieval times was called a leech book.
Humorism was a well known method of healing among those who had the money or status to actually see a physician trained in Roman/Greek methods of diagnosing an illness. The humors, certain fluids found in the body (the blood, the bile, phlegm) were examined for imbalances. Urine and feces were also often examined. Those in hospital were often used as case studies. Each of these humors, based on appearance, consistency and smell, related also to wet, dry, cold, or hot therapies. The humors could, therefore be balanced and wellness restored with appropriate therapies.
It might also interest you to know the term 'in hospital' meant being put somewhere you could receive help. It may have been someone's home, a church, a designated building for the homeless, sick or poor. To be in hospital implied you could not, for whatever reason, take care of yourself.
When the Black Death struck in 1347, people had no idea what caused it. The Black Death (the Bubonic Plague) was actually a pneumonic infection that was contracted through inhalation, ingestion and slight abrasion. It was also passed on by rats and fleas that traveled filth-ridden streets and towns. It was the plague that caused people to take a look at the link between hygiene and health. It was during this time that a group of spice trading thieves concocted a recipe, later called Thieves oil, to prevent themselves from getting sick while robbing victims of the plague. They used the oil as a rub on their bodies and under their noses in order to be able to rob the diseased and the dead without becoming sick themselves.
If you have never heard of Thieves oil it probably sounds like some hokey snake oil treatment sold back in the day and you'd be half right. It was sold as a treatment, but there is nothing hokey about it. In fact, it was the only treatment that worked.
Back then, Thieves oil was actually made by creating herbal infusions, vinegar and tinctures with fresh or dried herbs, which takes a little longer to make, but can still be made today to be used as a cold, flu, virus preventative when rubbed on the soles of the feet each day, as a remedy should you come down with symptoms, as a body spray when combined with water or Witch Hazel, as a decongestant when used in a vaporizer, as an aromatic that kills germs in the air when simmered in a pot of water on the stove for 20-30 minutes, and as a sanitizer when spritzed on hands, toys, sheets, counter tops, lunch boxes and pet beds. It can also be used to prevent and relieve symptoms of cold sores and genital herpes. I've created my own balm recipe based on this medieval remedy and share it with you in my e-book, Natural Remedies for HSV ~ How to Put Herpes in Remission. Since the oils I use in my recipe are proven to be antiviral my balm recipe works wonders against the herpes virus, cutting healing time by half and erasing agonizing pain and itch.
Another disease that had people questioning its cause was Leprosy. Leprosy is actually a bacteria. It was so completely misunderstood that Lepers were banned from 'normal' society and had no right under law. In fact, under church law Lepers were considered dead. Leprosy still exists today, but now that is is understood, no one has to suffer the isolation and depression that so many faced in medieval times.
Other methods were not so unlike those we use today, such as herbal therapy, where whole herbs, herbal tinctures, rubs, poultices and teas are implemented to relieve symptoms.
There were those who might know a little something about setting broken bones or putting a few stitches into a person, but anesthesia was not really discovered until the 1800s, so these kinds of things, including amputations, were at best a horror to the person involved. At best, a bit of alcohol or opium was provided. At worst, a concoction called dwale, which was a sedative made from various ingredients, such as vinegar, herbs (including lettuce and hemlock), and opium, which was quite toxic and could end in death if mixed wrong.
Deep punctures, arrow and other battle wounds were cleaned with mint, myyrh (as an antiseptic), vinegar or alcohol, yarrow or achillea (also for headaches), and cauterized with a red-hot iron. Sometimes, wounds were cleaned out with urine, which was sterile when first out of the body and cleaner than most water available.
Mint was also used to treat venomous bites.
Hemorrhoids were, sometimes, treated with a hot-poker until they discovered they were best treated with a soak in a bath.
Burns and skin scrapes were soothed with Aloe vera.
Those with headaches were given Chamomile tea and told to lay on a pillow of Rosemary and Lavender for a few minutes. Those with more severe head pains were also treated with sweet smelling herbs, such as Rose, Sage and Bay.
Coriander was used for fever.
Henbane and hemlock were applied to aching joints.
Wormwood, mint, laurel leaves (chewing on) and lemon balm were used for stomach ache and general stomach sickness. Later, Ginger was included.
For respiratory ills, specifically related to the lungs, liquorice and comfrey were offered.
Horehound syrups and beverages were given for colds and coughs.
Illness in medieval times was also diagnosed and cured through astrology, with certain body parts being directly influenced by the sun, moon and planets. Therefore appropriate therapies could be drawn up accordingly.
Last, but certainly not least, charms, rituals and prayer were used to heal the suffering.
Mari J. Dionne
AADP Certified Holistic Health Practitioner of Natural Healing
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