Medieval Medical Practices
The Divine Cause of Ailments
The Middle Ages, otherwise known as the Medieval Era, was the period of time between the 5th and the 15th Centuries, from the fall of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. During this time, most of European society and government was heavily influenced by the teachings of the Catholic Church, who all but monopolized areas of learning such as science and medicine, and strictly regulated what could be taught.
It was a common teaching of the Church at this time that is someone became sick because it was God's will, as a punishment for some sin or to test a Christian's morality; therefore, if the cause of an ailment was divine, the only way to heal a sick person was through prayer. Concepts from folk medicine, including spells and herbal remedies (some of which actually did work!) took a backseat to Christian prayer and tradition. Very few advancements were made during this period in history, and the few methodsthat medical practitioners did use could be quite gruesome at times.
But Where's Your Sense of Humour??
Many physicians during this time believed that all bodily functions were a direct result of various 'humours' in the body. This medical theory dates all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman Mystics, who believed that these "humours" were various fluids in the body that corresponded with the four basic natural elements; Phlegm represented water, blood was air, yellow bile was fire, and black bile was earth. The common belief in the Middle Ages was that a person became ill, emotionally or physically, because of an imbalance of these natural liquids in the body.
To cure a patient, therefore, doctors attempted to 'correct' the balance of these body fluids. A common practice at this time was 'blood-letting.' Blood was considered to be the dominant humour and therefore needed to be controlled more than the others. Therefore, people who experienced any physical ailment along with mental issues had 'excess blood' that needed to be drained.
The most common method of this practice was the placing of leeches over a patient's body by a physician and his assistants. Once the leeches had gorged themselves on what the doctor believed was an ample amount of blood, they were removed, and the patient was considered 'cured.' The most common disease associated with this practice? A fever. The Middle Ages was a rough time to have a high body temperature.
Other methods of balancing humours involved induced vomiting/diarrhea, causing heavy perspiration, and exercizing until a patient literally collapsed from exhaustion.
Meet: The Black Death
During the Middle Ages, the Bubonic Plague, or "The Black Death" as it was known at the time, was wreaking havoc on the European population. An estimated one-third of the population of Europe contracted and perished from this horrible disease. Once contracted, the hosts life expectancy was usually no more than 7 days.
The Black Death was actually an infection of the lymph nodes, usually around the arm-pit or groin regions, causing the nodes to swell and become very painful. Since there was no knowledge of microscopic bacteria, viruses, etc., there was no such thing as antibiotics. To treat the infected lymph nodes, physicians would usually pierce the inflamed area, almost like people today 'pop' pimples.
Afterwards, the area underneath was raw, highly sensitive, and now exposed to the elements. The wise doctors saw this, and developed what they felt was the best treatment for the exposed infection; they created a tasty paste of butter, onion, and garlic, and applied the fragrant mixture to the exposed wound. When these condiments were unavailable, doctors prescribed placing the carcass of a dead toad on the wound.
Going Under The Knife... Or Perhaps, The Rusty Blade
Surgeries during this period could be considered the most excruciating of all medieval medical treatments. There was no anesthesia, so everything about the procedures were felt by the clients. There were also no antiseptics, apart from a few primal disinfecting methods passed down from ancient times. It was also very difficult for anyone in the medical profession to actually learn about the human body, as dissections of human corpses was banned by the Church until very late into the Middle Ages. The educational benefits of dissection were not considered by the Church to have precedence over the preservation of the body, as the practice was often seen as a sort of 'desecration' of the body. Therefore. doctors at this time had very little knowledge of the inner workings of the human body.
This lack of understanding made performing any kind of corrective surgery very difficult, if not impossible. Many kinds of surgeries were performed during this period, although there is no way to know what the success rate of these procedures might have been. Operations ranged from amputations of infected limbs, eye cataract surgery, and the removal of arrows or other weapons from a victim's body - all while the patient was wide awake. Occasionally, doctors gave patients a heavy dose of opium, to dull the pain, or hemlock, to induce sleep - although scientifically either of these treatments would likely just induce an early death.
Childbearing in the Middle Ages
It was very, very difficult during this time period for a woman to carry and to bear children. Besides the ever-present risks of disease, infection and complications, women were constantly enduring the basic discomfort of Middle Age life; no sanitation, no plumbing, and moreover, it was not common practice to bathe more than once a month. It was so dangerous to be pregnant during this time that, when a woman was nearing the end of her third trimester, she was often told to prepare a shroud (as in a burial shroud) and confess their sins to a priest - in preparation for their own death.
Midwives were very useful for women enduring pregnancy and childbirth, often being some of the only entities during this time with the appropriate knowledge of the process, and they were often able to comfort and provide for both mother and child during the birthing process. Unfortunately, again due to the oppressive nature of the Church-based political system, midwives were often disregarded as professionals, and many times, they were accused of being 'witches.' Because of this negative image, in the later Middle Ages, after years of women in this profession enduring torture, interrogations and being executed in the most brutal ways imaginable, many women chose to refrain from this particular career. As the number of female midwives began to decline, it can only be guessed how many women and children suffered or perished, who would have greatly benefited and possibly survived from the assistance of another female with experience and knowledge in this area.
Most of our knowledge of childbirth during this period actually comes from the notes of male physicians and medically educated religious figures who performed what they felt were 'appropriate' procedures. Many of these individuals were trained in religious practice, but less so in medical care, or in the female anatomy. These predominantly male practitioners believed that if a woman was experiencing difficulty during delivery, it was because the baby was in an abnormal position within the womb, and therefore the 'doctors' felt it would help to shake the bed she was laying in or have the woman jump around, in an attempt to shake the fetus into the correct position, in some way. If a child died in the womb, doctors would 'surgically' open the womb and dismember the fetus before extracting it. And yet, despite the very contrasting methods between the male and female practitioners, it was the midwives who were considered to be 'evil.'
And A Look at Modern Medicine
Looking back on the various methods (and obvious madness) of medical care in the Middle Ages gives us a whole new perspective on the amazing achievements of modern medicine. Simple conveniences like antiseptics, painkillers, and perhaps most of all - soap - have saved countless lives and have improved the quality of life for people around the world. Vaccines and cures are abundant, easily available, and more are being discovered and improved upon everyday because of the scientific freedom to do so. In this day and age. It is easy to see why the life expectancy rate these days is significantly higher than that of medieval peoples - but then, with medical care being as it was back then, how long would you really want to live?