In the early middle ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, medical knowledge was based on Roman and Greek medical texts that had been preserved in monasteries and elsewhere. Church, god, sin, astral influences and destiny took priority and intervened over physical remedies. Amulets, potions, spells and exorcisms were a common part of the medieval healers arsenal against illness. In fact, recitations of the Torah (Jewish teachings), along with curative foods, was thought to be the ultimate cure-all.
So 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, such as baths (hot or cold) and exercise, certain foods and medications (mostly herbs) and rest.
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. Hospitals, as we have come to know them, were not developed until the 12th century (the 1100s).
When the Bubonic Plague (The Black Death) struck in 1347, people had no idea what caused it even though they had a fairly good notion that it was spread from one person to the next and one could possibly avoid contracting it if one could get far enough away from those who were already ill. Lepers and Jews were often charged and killed for bringing on the plague, which, of course, was absurd. The Black Death 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 very own formula based on the principals of this medieval remedy, which is available, made to order, through my web store. 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 that it is caused by a bacteria no one has to suffer the isolation that so many faced in medieval times. Still, it is a very difficult disease to treat.
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.
Natural Medieval Remedies
Illness in medieval times was also diagnosed and cured through astrology, with certain body parts being directly influenced by the sun, moon and planets. Appropriate therapies were drawn up accordingly. See Natural Remedies by Temperament.
Last, but certainly not least, charms, rituals and prayer were used to heal the suffering as nearly all illness and disease, mental or physical, were thought to be caused by spiritual agents, at least in part, and one's faith, or lack of, could not be ignored in treatment.
Photo by Pulkalski
About the Author
I'm a Highly Sensitive Person with a passion for researching ancient philosophies and old world remedies with my cat Blinker by my side. You can learn more about me here.
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Old World Forgotten Health Terms
Fish-Whole ~ as sound as a fish or healthy
Accoucheur ~ a male mid-wife
Kingsevil ~ a disease or swelling of the cervical lymph nodes
Valitudinary ~ subject to sickness; crazy
Chime-Child ~ a child born on Sunday who was immune to witchcraft, could see ghosts, and was a natural healer
Periblepsis ~ a delirious stare of the eyes
Wormland ~ a churchyard
Green-Sickness ~ a disease incident to virgins; sickly paleness, with green tint of complexion
Tissek or Tissicky Cough ~ a tickling faint cough
Multiplying Medicine ~ an elixer of the alchemists, used in making and multiplying gold
Peat-Reek-Whisky ~ highland whiskey, distilled over peat fires
Belly-Brussen ~ a distended stomach or having a protuberant stomach
Oint ~ to smear with an unctuous substance (usually having to do with painting or disguising something)
Farbed-Up ~ confused
Nyctobasis ~ Somnambulism; to walk in one's sleep
Roozles ~ wretchedness of mind and body
Coolth ~ coolness (opposite of warmth)
Pharmacopolist ~ an apothecary
Laver ~ to wash (before dinner)
Gothicism ~ to be rude or rudeness
Desuetude ~ lack of use
Splay the Bream ~ to cut up that fish
Doctor of Skill ~ a physician
Pimpish ~ dainty in the matter of food (taking in small quantities)
Dendranthoplology ~ the theory that man sprang from trees
Fash ~ care, trouble, anxiety, as in "do not fash yerself."
Satisfy Colon ~ to satisfy one's hunger
Neurasthenia ~ debility or impairment of the nerves
Trollibags ~ the intestines
Cothish ~ faint, sickly, ailing
Fogo ~ a disagreeable stink or smell
With Squirrel ~ pregnant
Pottinger ~ a cook, apothecary, druggist (Scotland)
Pomster ~ a quack doctor; to treat illness without knowledge or skill
Bleflummery ~ vain imaginings
Venefice ~ a practice of poisoning
Weaponsalve ~ a salve that was supposed to cure the wound by applying it to the weapon that caused it
Overset ~ to recover from mental shock
Fordolked ~ wounded
Witchify ~ to bewitch
Wamblecropped ~ humiliated
Naufrage ~ shipwreck
Peffle ~ in a nervous state
Measondue ~ a hospital or poor house
Dead-Nip ~ a blue mark on the body not caused by an injury or any known cause...sometimes called a witch's nip
Sadly On ~ expressing that a person is ill or in a bad way
Whirligigs or Tallywags ~ testicles
Betwattled ~ to be surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses
Blind Cupid ~ the backside
Bone Box ~ the mouth
Dicked in the Nob ~ silly, crazed
Head Rails ~ teeth
Hickey ~ tipsy, hiccupping
Knowledge box ~ a term for the head