Kill or cure? 10 medieval medical practices and their effectiveness

Would these 10 medieval medical practices have given you a new lease of life, or sent you to an early grave?

A 12th-century English manuscript shows a surgeon operating on a patient's eye. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
1

Bloodletting

Phlebotomy aimed to maintain or restore the humoral balance in the body by removing a moderate amount of blood. We know today that losing a small quantity of blood is usually not harmful, but nor is it beneficial. In the Middle Ages it was recognised that it was dangerous to draw blood from the elderly or the very sick, and that excessive bleeding, through injury or another cause, needed to be staunched.

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COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

2

Charms

These magical remedies were not without benefit, since they sometimes incorporated medicinal plants and other therapeutic substances – and they could serve to reassure the patient. Nonetheless, the treatments usually contained fewer beneficial components than comparable non-magical recipes.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine. To read the full feature by Elma Brenner, click here, or to read more from the issue, click here

A doctor examines a patient's urine in an illustration from the 13th century. Uroscopy, the study of urine, was one of the medieval physician's most effective tools, and is still employed today. (Photo by Bridgman Art Library)

3

Family planning

Herbal treatments based on plants such as sage, rue and pennyroyal were administered to women seeking to induce an abortion, often in the form of a drink. Several of the plants in question are known today to act as stimulants, and to promote menstruation. It is known that a high dosage of pennyroyal can bring about an abortion.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

4

Couching for cataracts

Medieval surgeons treated cataracts by using a needle to dislodge the cloudy lens from its position in front of the pupil of the eye. People recognised that the procedure could be dangerous, and that specialist skills were required for it to work. Today, couching is seen as an ineffective method of treating cataracts that often results in blindness.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

5

Pharmacy

Apothecaries compounded medicines using a wide array of substances. While some materials were probably ineffective or even dangerous, others, such as ginger and senna, are used today for their medicinal properties. The pages of medieval pharmaceutical manuscripts may in fact contain remedies of which the benefits are asyet unknown to modern medicine.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

6

Counterfeit cures

Rogue practitioners sometimes marketed counterfeit medical remedies, especially during times of heightened anxiety about plague. These treatments prevented sick people from seeking more beneficial advice, and could prove dangerous, especially if a poisonous substance was sold to a patient.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

7

Astrology

Doctors paid attention to the movements of the planets and the signs of the zodiac to determine the appropriate time to treat specific ailments. The Zodiac Man image (shown above left), widely copied in medieval manuscripts, shows the signs of the zodiac associated with particular parts of the body. Ideas still exist today about the influence of celestial bodies, especially the Moon, on menstruation and other aspects of health. However, scientific research seems to have disproven such ideas.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

8

Hospital care

Although medieval hospital patients were unlikely to be treated by a physician or surgeon, they benefited from the expertise of nursing staff, who were often women. Hospitals offered basic bodily care, in the form of food, drink and shelter. While this care did not encompass specialised treatments, it enabled the sick to regain strength towards their recovery.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

9

Theriac

This remedy, in which plant extracts were ground up with the flesh of vipers and other substances, was held as a powerful antidote to poisons, and believed to have many other healing properties. However, although theriac was expensive and highly sought-after, it is difficult to discern how this medicine would have proved effective or beneficial.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

10

Uroscopy

Examining urine was one of the only ways in which the medieval doctor could assess the internal state of the body. The urine was collected in a flask, and its colour, smell and consistency were assessed. Medieval medical manuscripts often contain diagrams showing the different qualities of urine and how these related to diseases and states of health. Urine samples are still analysed by doctors today.

COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

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This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine