Ask the medieval doctor: 6 ailments and their treatments

Imagine you are an average person living in the Middle Ages. What would you do if you fell ill? How do you go about staying healthy? And what medical advice is available to you at the time? Here, Wellcome Collection’s Dr Elma Brenner turns medieval doctor, issuing health advice on everything from headaches and broken bones, to infected cuts and even a heart attack

Miniature showing dissection of human cadaver by physicians. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

From hangover cures to treating infections – what advice does our ‘medieval doctor’ have for the average person living in the Middle Ages?

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1

I’ve got a headache (probably because I drank too much beer last night). What should I do?

The medieval doctor replies:

You are already somewhat knowledgeable about alcohol-drinking and its consequences. I think you already know (or someone in your family has told you) that you should be resting and drinking plenty of fluids today. I doubt you feel it is necessary to seek any type of ‘professional’ medical treatment.

History events: Medieval Life and Death

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2

I fell off my horse and I’ve broken my leg. Who can help me?

The medieval doctor replies:

You should find a local surgeon and ask for their advice. This can either be someone who is university educated, or, alternatively, a person who is much more practice based. They will probably try to do something for you – perhaps resetting the bone and heavily bandaging it. They might operate, but this is deeply risky; there is a widespread awareness that these kinds of operation are dangerous and can lead to infections. In this regard, it may be best to leave your leg alone. You should be prepared to have issues with your mobility in the immediate future.

3

I’ve eaten something that doesn’t agree with me. I’m nauseous and having trouble at both ends. What might I do to help myself?

The medieval doctor replies:

You should start by seeking some remedies to help ease your symptoms. Your local parish priest may have a book of remedies and be able to look something up for you. You can then go to an apothecary (a pharmacist) and ask them to make the remedy up for you. Follow their instructions – and hope for the best. If your symptoms worsen and you have very little money, you may have to go into a hospital for the poor and receive care there.


4

I’ve got a toothache – is there anything that can help?

The medieval doctor replies:

There is likely someone fairly local to you who is an expert in matters concerning teeth. This person might be a general surgeon, or they could be someone who is truly specialised. Quite often, people who know a lot about teeth are itinerant and will travel around offering their service; you can try seeking their advice. Depending on your contacts and finances, you might be able to get in touch with someone more or less quickly.

In terms of treatment, a tooth extraction may be recommended. Distilled alcohol might be recommended as pain relief in the intervening period (it can also be used as an anaesthetic, if necessary). Opiates also exist, and are used for pain relief, among other things.

5

I’ve got a cut on my arm that won’t heal. It is turning green and smelling badly. What do I do?

The medieval doctor replies:

This is definitely one for the surgeon. They will take a look at the cut and provide you with some kind of dressing; this might be infused with various plant extracts or even something like silver, which is known to have healing properties. Unfortunately, there is no way of providing a totally sterile cleansing of your wound. The necessary knowledge for this does not exist – so you might actually feel quite worried about that, which is understandable.

6

I’ve got a sudden pain in my chest and I can’t breathe. Can I do anything about this, or am I just going to die?

The medieval doctor replies:

Not much can be done about this, I’m afraid. If you try to seek medical help, you will discover that there is knowledge of this kind of thing happening to other people (and there is some knowledge about getting people to rest and lie down). If your chest pain goes on for a while, a bloodletting might be recommended – but there will not be any other kind of surgical intervention.

Dr Elma Brenner is Wellcome Collection’s medieval specialist. Listen to her speaking about medieval medicine on our podcast here

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Elma will also be speaking at BBC History Magazine’s Medieval Life and Death days in York and London – click here for more information