Medieval Folk Medicine
In early medieval Europe (500AD to 1100AD), most towns and villages relied on folk medicine. Professional medieval medicine was based on teachings and texts of ancient Roman and Greek physicians (Galen). After the fall of the Roman Empire (476AD), formal medicine came to a virtual standstill, going from a scientific approach to a practical approach based more on the religious beliefs of the secular community. Universities trained very few physicians with no advancement in medical research. Still, trained physicians were costly and only available to the wealthy. During this time, monasteries hand copied Greek and Roman medical manuscripts, making them the medical knowledge centers until the Renaissance period of the 12th Century.
Unlike professional medieval medicine that was based on the Four Humors (bodily fluids), blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile along with the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water that were taught through teachings and text—“folk medicine” relied on the herbal remedies of plants, flowers, tree bark, superstitious beliefs, and mysticisms that were passed down from generation to generation, these “collected” remedies were administer by the local healers (mostly women) , shamans, or witches in the forms of herbs and potions along with incantations, spells and other rituals.
The use of herbs for medical remedies can be traced back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians who recorded medical uses for plants such as, thyme, laurel and caraway. Ancient Egyptians (1,000 BC) are also known to have used garlic, opium, mint, and coriander. Other ancient cultures like India, China also have a long recorded history of herbal medicines. For medieval Europe, herbal medicines were derived from the Romans and Greeks who recorded medical uses of over 500 plants (Doiscorides, first century AD). Some European cultures considered some herbs highly sacred by virtue of their magical powers, such as the Celts (Anglo-Saxon) and their seven sacred herbs—St. Johns Wart, Mint, Juniper, Thyme, Elder, Willow, and Nuts and Cones.
Herbal medicines were made from herbal plants and flowers, essentially all parts of the plant were used, stems, petals, leaves, seeds, oils, and roots. Herbs were prepared in many ways depending on the plant and their use—they could be eaten in dry form, they could be given in a tea form, or with mixed with cold water, alcohol, honey/fruit juice, or vinegar. In addition, they were administered in compress/poultice, salves/oils, or by inhalation.
Here’s a partial list of herbs, their medical and magical uses:
Angelica—used to cure respiratory disease and plague
Magical: protection from witchcraft
Basil—used to cure stomach ailments and scorpion bites
Cabbage—used to cure diarrhea, kidney/stomach ailments and eye disease
Magical: prevention of hangovers and drunkenness
Cloves—used to cure plague
Coriander—used to cure cramps, cough, plague, worms, and insomnia
Magical: improvement of memory
Cowbane— a poisonous plant used to cure cramps, epilepsy, used as painkiller
Magical: used in witchcraft
Deadly Night Shade (Belladonna) — a poisonous plant used to cure headaches, used as pain killer
Magical: used in witchcraft (aka, devil’s herb)
Fennel—used to cure fever, stomach ailments, insanity, and eye disease
Magical: prevention of witchcraft
Mugwort— used to cure flu, parasites, and woman’s diseases
Magical: protection from fatigue, sunstroke, evil spirits and wild beast
Rosemary—used to cure wounds, fractures, sprains, coughs, dizziness, and stomach aliments
Magical: protection from evil eye, plague and fairies stealing infants
Vervain—used to cure colds, fever, gout, diarrhea, and skin infections
Magical: love potion and to counteract witches spells
Wood Betony—used as a cure all
Magical: most popular amulet herb
Potions and Rituals
Medieval folk medicine was based on superstitions. Death and disease were attributed to the working of evil spirits, forces, or malevolent beings and the use of potions and rituals were commonly used to protect and prevent people from these evil entities.
Medieval healing potions consisted of herbs, plants, tree bark, or roots and mixed with various items including vinegar, honey, milk, or ale. Animal parts, urine and excrement were sometimes used for their healing and magical powers. For instance, for a dog bite (from a mad dog), the affected person should eat some of the dog’s hair, boiled or fried with rosemary. Here are some others:
For a surgical anesthetic, a mixture of lettuce juice, gall from a castrated boar, briony, opium, henbane, hemlock juice and vinegar mixed with wine was used to put patients asleep and as a pain reliever.
For aching joints, a mixture of hemlock and henbane was applied to the affected joint.
For headaches, heather was boiled in water and applied to the head.
To cure dropsy, a drink of boiled down nettles (gathered from a church yard).
To relieve toxins from the body, a poultice of onions were applied to the stomach and armpits (Scottish).
Rituals were used daily to prevent and protect people from disease and evil. Rituals were performed with use of herbs, flowers, amulets, or other objects that were portrayed to have magical powers. Here’s a partial list of medieval rituals—an iron ring worn on the forth finger could protect a person from rheumatism.
Hanging a wreath of garlic blubs in a house will prevent disease.
Mint tied around the wrist will ward off disease and infection.
Carrying a piece of ash wood will protect you from drowning.
Wearing bracelets and necklaces of dried peony root will ward of demons.
Scattering elder leaves to the four winds will protect you from evil.
Due to the rise and influence of the church and Christianity, folk medicine became outlawed—spells and incantations were replaced by Christian prayers or devotions and the mystical powers of herbs, flowers, plants, trees, gems and other related objects were explained through Christian doctrines. The Renaissance of the 12th century brought a re-awaking and revival medieval medicine and research via translations’ of Islamic medicines. As medieval European medicine became more developed, folk medicine with its superstitions and mysticism faded away.
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