Medieval medicine was based largely on inaccurate theories like humorism and sympathetic magic. The same plants that were used as medicines were also used as poisons and superstition guided medicine instead of the scientific method. Medical "knowledge" was derived mostly from Ancient Greek and Roman texts which hadn't been updated for centuries. Monks would translate these texts verbatim and then grow the plants in their herb gardens. The ancient texts didn't lose their influence until the Renaissance when Paracelsus promoted the use of original observation and research.
The Black Death was the deadliest disease that medieval doctors had to contend with. Other common diseases were dysentery, St. Anthony's Fire (caused by infected rye), gonorrhea, influenza, leprosy, malaria, measles, smallpox, and typhoid fever. Medieval physicians rarely ever treated these diseases as one entity. Instead they treated each symptom such as cough or fever separately. This meant patients often took more than one toxic remedy, and the cycle continued when the remedy itself caused new symptoms.
When someone became ill in the middle ages who they went for medical help largely depended on their location. Monks, especially Benedictine monks, commonly practiced medicine. In large cities that had universities there were specially trained physicians and medical guilds. If a physician wasn't available, there were three types of surgeons. The best was an educated surgeon, followed by a craft-surgeon, and then by a barber-surgeon. Then there were specialized practitioners like midwives, dentists, and eye doctors. Witches and wise men were also present to recommend herbs.
Bloodletting was considered a cure-all in Medieval Europe. The practice has its origins in ancient India and Greece, and continued into the Middle Ages where the task was designated to barber-surgeons. The red stripe on the familiar barbershop pole represents blood being drawn. The blood was drawn either by puncturing a vein or applying leeches. Barber-surgeons used bloodletting to treat gangrene, insanity, leprosy, gout, cholera, plague, scurvy, tuberculosis, and even acne. It was believed that bloodletting balanced the four humors of the body: black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. Now bloodletting is considered ineffective at treating all of these diseases but plastic and reconstructive surgeons have found a use for leeches in preventing blood clots.
Trepanning is a surgical procedure where a circular hole is drilled into the skull. This was believed to let a demon out, curing madness. The piece of bone that was removed was then kept as a charm to ward off evil spirits. Even in Medieval Europe some recognized the ludicrousness of this procedure. Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch mocks the procedure in one of his paintings, "The Extraction of the Stone of Madness." 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault comments " Bosch's famous doctor is far more insane than the patient he is attempting to cure."
Dismemberment was the term for surgical amputation which was used to cure infected wounds, while amputation prior to the 17th century actually referred to a punishment for criminals. Potentially deadly anesthetics and pain relievers like Deadly Nightshade and Wolf's Bane were given to the patient. Medieval surgeons had no concept of sterilization and the patient often got infected from the surgery. After the limb was removed the leg was cauterized to stop the bleeding. If the patient did survive the anesthetic, infection, and surgical procedure they were often mentally traumatized for life.
In the early days of color film, cinematographers often tinted scenes in purple when someone was about to die or when a character seemed to be going mad, perhaps deriving the symbolism of purple from these plants' deadly and hallucinogenic properties. The practice isn't as common today, but note the number of Disney villains that have purple-colored skin or clothing. (Maleficent, Ursula, Claude Frollo, Hades, etc.)
In medieval thought anything that had purple flowers had to work. Even though they gave the plants scary names like deadly nightshade and wolf's bane and were aware of their poisonous properties, they continued to use them as remedies. Since usually unknown factors like plant age and environment often affected the potency of the plant more than the actual dosage, ingesting these remedies was like playing Russian Roulette.
Belladonna / Deadly Nightshade.
Belladonna and Deadly Nightshade refer to the same plant. Belladonna has purple flowers and blackberries and has been used for its medicinal, poisonous, psychoactive, and cosmetic properties.
- In medieval Europe witches used belladonna to make a hallucinogenic brew. Witches were also said to have created a flying ointment out of belladonna, opium poppy, monkshood, and poison hemlock.
- Macbeth of Scotland used belladonna to poison an invading English army.
- Italian noblewomen used belladonna droplets to dilate their pupils which was seen as a sign of beauty. However, overuse of belladonna droplets could lead to blindness.
- As a medicine Belladonna was used as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. Unlike other questionable medieval practices, belladonna is still actually used today as a medicine. Instead of gathering wild belladonna leaves and roots now people cultivate it mainly for one of its alkaloids, atropine, which is an antispasmodic.
Skullcap is a lavender plant that was used to cure headaches. Its seeds were thought to resemble tiny skulls. In medieval medicine if a plant resembled a part of the body it was thought to be good at treating any ailment that affected that part of the body, thus skullcap was used to treat headaches. This practice was known as the "Doctrine of Signatures," and was thought to be a guide from God. Despite having some good ideas, Paracelsus also promoted the Doctrine of Signatures in his writings which hasn't been shown to have any validity by modern science.
Monkshood / Wolf's Bane
Another plant with purple flowers, wolf's bane was used as a pain reliever, sedative, and anesthetic. Applied to the skin it eventually paralyzes the nerves. It was a very dangerous anesthetic to use because wolf's bane is poisonous. In Asia hunters and warriors tipped their arrows in the poison derived from wolf's bane to kill bears and other warriors. Taken orally, wolf's bane numbs the nerves but slows the heart rate to a dangerously low rate. A large enough dose can cause instantaneous death. Smaller fatal doses of wolf's bane first induce vomiting, then a burning sensation in the mouth and abdomen, then it continues to lower the heart rate until the heart or respiratory center is paralyzed. Even handling the leaves with bare hands can cause poisoning that affects the heart. For these reasons modern medicine has abandoned wolf's bane.
Lungwort is yet another plant with purple flowers and white-spotted leaves. The leaves were used to treat infections of the lungs that caused coughs or breathing problems like tuberculosis and asthma. The white spots on the leaves of lungwort were thought to resemble diseased lungs. The leaves of lungwort contain a toxic alkaloid that deters insects from eating the leaves but also causes liver damage when consumed by humans.
Toothwort is a parasitic purple plant that was used to treat toothaches. Like the Venus flytrap, toothwort has the unusual ability to sense when an insect lands on it and grab the insect with filaments to kill and digest it. The roots were applied to an aching tooth to relieve the pain.
Rosemary is a flowering plant that is part of the mint family. It was sometimes used to make teas which were thought to cure many illnesses or wreathes. Rosemary is one of the few medieval remedies that isn't highly toxic. In fact rosemary is a popular flavoring. In Medieval Europe many superstitions surrounded rosemary:
- Rosemary was thought to improve the memory.
- It was also used as poppet stuffing to cure illness.
- Like the Native American dream catcher, a sprig of rosemary placed under the pillow could dispel nightmares.
- Rosemary would not grow in the gardens of evil people.
- If it was grown outside the home then that home would be protected from witches.
Mandrake was used as an aphrodisiac, a cure-all, and for its hypnotic properties. It was also known to be poisonous. Medicinally, it was used to cure gout and insomnia, to heal wounds, and as an anesthetic. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, mandrake roots resembled an entire man or women and so it was thought that mandrake roots were capable of shrieking if they were pulled from the ground. This shrieking could drive the person mad and even kill them. Because it was still valued as a cure-all, strange rituals were invented for harvesting mandrake root safely. One involved tying a dog to the plant to pull it up so that the dog would die instead of the person.
Henbane is a yellow plant that was popular with witches and was also used as a sedative and anodyne. Witches are thought to have used it to induce visual hallucinations of flying. To make an anesthetic it was combined with deadly nightshade, mandrake, and datura. Henbane is also poisonous and is not used in modern medicine as an anesthetic.
Datura / Moonflowers
Datura is a plant with white flowers that is both hallucinogenic and poisonous. Witches used datura to make flight ointments and love potions. The seeds or leaves were dropped into a fermented drink which caused visual hallucinations. Datura was thought to cure insomnia, deafness, and fever. While it does put a person in a sleeping state, it actually causes hyperthermia. If a person survives, they usually feel pain when looking at bright light for several days and experience amnesia.
Liverwort is a small plant that was used to treat the liver due to belief in the Doctrine of Signatures. Modern science found no validity in treating the liver with liverwort, but liverwort does serve the purpose of decorating aquariums in the modern world. Like most medieval remedies, liverwort can also be poisonous.
Wormwood is a bitter-tasting plant perhaps best known as an ingredient in Absinthe but before that it was used to make a tea that treats intestinal parasites. Unlike other medieval remedies, wormwood actually has some valid medicinal properties. It inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeast, and the fungus that causes ringworm and athlete's foot. Wormwood also works very well at treating malaria and is still used for this purpose today.
Yarrow / Soldier's Woundwort / Bloodwort
Yarrow was commonly used to treat knights who were wounded in battle. This treatment was actually effective because the flowers do help to clot blood when pressed against a wound. This is why it was also known as bloodwort. Yarrow has clusters of small white, yellow, or magenta flowers.
Common Medieval Diseases
The Black Death
The black death was the most devastating disease in Medieval Europe and killed off a third of Europe's population. It was brought to Europe through the earliest known instance of biological warfare. When the Mongols besieged Kaffa, a city in present day Ukraine, they loaded the dead and dying bodies of soldiers who had been infected with the plague onto their catapults and launched them over the city walls to infect those inside.
Plague doctors wore the easily recognizable beak masks that were filled with aromatic herbs to prevent the doctors from catching the plague. They had no concept of the modern theory that the plague was spread by fleas and rats. Instead, the Black Death was thought to be a punishment from God. Some also believed that Jews had poisoned the wells. Jews, lepers, and gypsies were persecuted during this time because many believed they were spreading the plague. Many others joined the Flagellants, a religious group that advocating whipping oneself in the name of God.
Medieval Remedies for The Black Death:
- A bath of vinegar and rose water
- Lancing the buboes
- Burning incense made of rosemary
- Four Thieves Vinegar
Lepers experienced severe social stigma in the Medieval era. Before being persecuted for supposedly spreading the black death, lepers were isolated in leper's colonies where they were treated with mercury. Another strange treatment was baths of blood or beverages made of blood. Sometimes lepers were also treated with snake venom and bee stings. A leper was also required to wear a bell to warn healthy people of his/her approach. Some believed that lepers were going through Purgatory on earth.
St. Anthony's Fire
People caught St. Anthony's Fire from eating rye that was infected by a fungus. Today this is known as ergot poisoning. St. Anthony's Fire is like a monstrous version of the modern flu. In addition to headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, St. Anthony's Fire also induced psychosis, spasms, and gangrene in the fingers and toes. St. Anthony's Fire had a 40% mortality rate and was more common near marshy areas.
Smallpox was known as the Red Plague. It became most prevalent during the Crusades and had a 30% mortality rate. Smallpox causes a distinctive rash. A popular medieval belief was that smallpox was caused by the smallpox demon who was afraid of the color red, so to treat smallpox the patients room was decorated in red. Patients also wore red clothing. If the infected person survived, smallpox often left behind scarring.
Quick Guide to Medieval Remedies
Mandrake root, bloodletting, sage, rosemary tea, vervain
A bagful of buttercups worn around the neck, bloodletting, trepanning
A mixture of nettles and egg white, mandrake root, datura, saffron
Datura, angelica, chamomile, coriander seeds,
Lungwort, horehound, pennyroyal and honey, oregano
Rosemary placed under the pillow
Anodynes and Anesthetics:
Deadly nightshade,monkshood, henbane, mandrake root, opium, gall of boar, hops, cloves
Skullcap, boiled heather, chamomile, lavender, rose hip tea
Mint, oregano, ginger
Mint, parsley boiled in wine
St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort