Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
Middle Age Medicine Memories
If you were diagnosed with a medical conditions, the Middle Ages is probably not the time period that you want to be living in. This a period, lasting roughly from 500 AD to 1500 AD, was a time that didn't know about germ transmission and put much more faith in religion than science.
However, if you look beyond what is now horrific by modern standards you'll see that healthcare professionals of the Middle Ages we're trying to do what was best for their patients given a very limited understanding of the human body. In this effort they had some successes with herbal remedies. In this lesson we'll will be looking at the medicine and health care of the Middle Ages.
Let's start with the positive aspects of the Middle Age health care system. Truth be told, many of the herbal remedies that used weren't so bad. Through hundreds of years of trial and error many herbal remedies were established and widely prescribed by apothecaries. There were used to relieve colds, upset stomachs, and to dull pain.
But that's not all. Some medieval doctors had access to herbs that would help reduce the pain of contractions during childbirth, fight intestinal parasites, and even hemlock was used as anesthetic during operations. A root called bitter vetch, grown in Scotland and Northern England, was widely recognized for its ability to ward off hunger during a famine.
Of course, different herbs grew in different places, so much of this knowledge was incredibly localized. Herbs in Scotland did people in Italy little, if any, good.
Bleeding and Humors
Unfortunately in other cases, many medieval doctors simply did not have their act together. The most common doctor was often openly referred to as a quack. In fact, we have training manuals from the period that show doctors being told to be ambiguous about the health of the patient to their families.
These doctors relied on a complex system of bleeding individuals to remove the disease from the body. This meant cutting them open and letting the 'bad blood' drain away. This was to make what was then known as the four humors, namely blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, go back into balance, as it was thought that they caused sickness when out of balance.
True doctors who had attended universities were beyond the reach of the common person and served only the rich, the noble, and royalty. That said, their education was still controlled by the Church, which at the time was hesitant to use the research-based methods we use today.
The Plague Doctors
The best places we can see this mix of good medicine and bad thought is in the plague doctors. Their purpose was to treat the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. The Black Death was a major killer of the era, causing the population of Europe to drop by 30% during the 14th century.
Plague doctors were hired and paid by the cities, so that they could treat everyone, rich or poor. However, as there was no screening for who could be a plague doctor, the position was filled with very young, new doctors or even people of completely different professions originally. Many of them did more counting of victims than actual treatment, and some charged their patients for special treatments, though they were supposed to be paid for by the cities.
Plague doctors wore long beaks over their mouths when in proximity to the ill. They stuffed the beaks with herbs and medicinal plants, thinking that the good smells would keep out 'bad air', thought spread plague in a theory called 'miasma'. Though incorrect, the beaks may have played a role in keeping pathogens away. Many plague doctors fell ill with plague or disappeared, probably having fled.
Alright let's review. Medieval medicine was a mixed bag. On one hand, local practitioners could draw on years of expertise in dealing with herbs and other medicinal plants to treat common conditions. On the other hand, the doctors of the day were often no more than self-made quacks who did more damage than good. Much of the effort at the time revolved around keeping the four humors of blood, phlegm, red bile, and yellow bile in balance.
Even university-trained doctors were hemmed in by requirements of the church. Plague doctors were hired by cities themselves to help those with the bubonic plague, though they were often second-rate at best. While they may have been wrong about 'good air', the herb filter in their beak masks may have played a role in keeping pathogens away.
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