- In the Middle Ages, there was no tradition of scientific medicine.
- Spiritual and religious ideas influenced scientists.
- In this time, doctors got their ideas from books from the Greeks and Romans.
During the Middle Ages, most people lived in rural areas. The average life expectancy was 30-35 years, and 1 out of 5 children died at birth. Keep reading to learn more medieval medicine facts.
When people lived in the Medieval period, they didn’t have any public health or education services. Communication was difficult, and there were no schools. People were also superstitious because they couldn’t read or write.
Medicine was not developed under the scientific method as it is today. There were no doctors as such at that time.
The Roman Catholic Church and Medicine
The Roman Catholic Church was dominant during the Middle Ages. Any view that was different from what they thought was labeled heresy and punished accordingly.
The Church said that people were sick because they were bad. No one questioned this idea; it was true for them. It was also seen as usual to be suffering as a human.
As people started to care more about their souls, they began to neglect their bodies. So doctors made prescriptions as prayers.
People started believing that diseases came from different things, like being caused by destiny or sin. They also thought that the disease would be cured if you repented your sins.
Medieval Medicine: The Four Humors
In the Middle Ages, people thought that the body was made up of four things. They were yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood.
These practices were controlled by the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. The imbalance of humors caused diseases. Treatments for the body included bleeding, cupping, and leeching. These treatments continued until the Middle Ages.
Many diseases were thought to be caused by too much blood in the body. Bloodletting was seen as a way to get rid of the extra blood and make you feel better.
People also think that what you eat has an important impact on your health. For example, Hippocrates was quoted as saying that “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Astrology and Medicine
In Medieval Europe, people believed that all four elements had to be in harmony for the body to operate well. They also thought there would be no imbalances.
Ancient people believed that the moon influenced liquids on earth. They thought that the moon could do good or bad things to fluids in your body.
Doctors formerly relied on what the sky looked like when making a diagnosis. Physicians had to know when to administer treatment, and the position of the planets could determine this for them.
Some people thought that the moon and planets told them when to do bloodletting. Others thought that medical charts could tell doctors what not to do for people born under specific astrological signs.
A Recipe for Curing Headaches
This is an example of a recipe for an ointment that can cure headaches and other pains in the joints. It is from the Middle Ages.
- Use radish, garlic, bishop wort, helenium, wormwood, crop leek, and hollow leek.
- Slice or chop them into small pieces and fry in butter with celandine and red nettle.
- Make the mixture in a brass pot.
- Stir it until it is dark red.
- Strain it and put it on the forehead or where there is pain.
Other Medieval “Doctors”
Most people did not see a doctor in Medieval times. The local wise woman treated them. She used herbs to help people get better.
They also visited the priest or barber. Broken bones were set, or teeth were extracted, among other things.
Some of the cures of the past were superstitions. They included using magic stones and charms, religion when necessary to drive out evil spirits, and herbal remedies.
Monks and nuns ran hospitals in their monasteries. They took in the sick and dying.
Medieval Medicine: Monasteries and Herbaries
In the Middle Ages, monks who lived in monasteries planted and experimented on medicinal plants. They studied what was written in classic texts about them.
Sick people went to monasteries, local herbalists, or apothecaries for healing herbs. Most monasteries developed plant gardens. Some people even used them to make medicine.
Many monks are good at making books and manuscripts, so they also made herbal remedies.
However, the works of ancient writers like Pliny and Dioscorides were copied in medieval times. They wrote about myths and folklore, trees, and medicinal plants.
Medieval doctors were trained to find the problem with your body. Doctors checked for problems by looking at urine or feeling your pulse. The doctors first took a look at the patient, listened to what they had to say, felt their pulse, and examined their urine.
In the sixth century, Cassiodorus wrote that a skilled healer could see what was wrong with a patient by feeling their pulse. Pulsing veins, the color of urine, and other things were seen as important to know which disease ailed you.
Medieval Herbal Medicine
Some plants were used in Medieval medicine, and while some could cure a few diseases, others might aid with several. Draughts tended to include a variety of herbs in many situations.
People needed to go to monasteries for healing plants. They might have gone to witches or apothecaries for them.
The oldest surviving English herbal manuscript is the Saxon Leech Book of Bald. It has advice for treating different ailments by using heat and herbs.
This book shows how people used to use fragrant woods and plants to make a person feel better. They would make a garland out of them and then hang it in their house.
Every type of herb, tree, and flower has a unique quality. But the rose is most often associated with the Middle Ages.
The Crusaders brought back different kinds of perfume from the Middle East. One type was called rosewater, and the nobles put bowls of it for guests to wash their hands after meals. Rose petals were also used to scent bath water.
In the past, people thought that if something looked like a part of your body, it would help with an ailment. For example, herbs that look like your nose might be good for a sore nose.
The medieval Christian church taught that there is a way to cure every illness. They believed that all the things-animals, plants, and minerals have a mark or sign on them to tell you what they can do.
Today, some people don’t think that plant shapes and colors can help with medicine. That’s because there is no scientific evidence that they do.
Medieval Medicine: The First Schools of Medicine
In the Middle Ages, some doctors only treated rich people. Some of these doctors had received qualifications from medical schools in Italy or France.
These schools taught doctors about Arabic and ancient Greek medicine. But they weren’t as advanced as the Arabs were.
A Syrian writer describes an Arab doctor and a European one who argued about treating an abscess on a knight’s leg. The Arab made a dressing for the infected lump. The European said to cut off the leg!
Broken Bones and Surgeries
Doctors and barber-surgeons knew how to take care of broken bones. They could set them, so they healed well. Doctors also learned to seal wounds with something that would not let germs in, like egg whites or old wine.
Doctors knew how to use alcohol or plants like mandragora to send people to sleep in the Middle Ages. Doctors also used them if people were in pain. They would also use opium for sleep and wine to clean wounds.
Medieval doctors could also take off organs like the gallbladder and deliver babies by cutting the stomach.
Medieval surgeries consisted of amputations, cauterization, cataract removals, and dental extractions, among other things.
The Black Death
One of the worst pandemics in history is The Black Death. It happened in Europe during the Middle Ages. Many people got it when a boat from the Black Sea came to Italy, and someone onshore got it from them.
The people on the docks looked at the ships. They found that most of the sailors were dead and that those still alive had terrible fevers, couldn’t keep food down, and acted like they were crazy.
The Black Death was a bad thing. It made people sick, and they had black boils on them. They ordered the ships out of town, but it was too late to stop the disease.
In the next 5 years, the Black Death would kill 20 million people in Europe. That is 1/3 of Europe’s population!
When people didn’t know how the disease spread, they turned to prayers and going on a pilgrimage. The Church said it was because of the sinfulness that people had done.
Some people thought that they had sinned, and they wanted to show how sorry they were. They whipped themselves to show their love of God and their true repentance at being a sinner.
Healthy people were afraid of getting sick. Doctors would not see patients. Priests refused to give last rites. Shopkeepers closed their stores.
Many people left the cities for the countryside. They also got sick there. The disease affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens too. And many people left their sick or dying loved ones because they wanted to stay alive.
The Black Death epidemic has gone away. But it is back every few generations. We use sanitation, public-health practices, and antibiotics to keep the disease from spreading. But we cannot stop it altogether.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten all the way up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!