The Fatal Cure: Medieval Medicine And The Human Body

Leeches, herbs, and blood-letting... these were the miracle cures of the Middle Ages. But were these actually cures, or were they more deadly than the ailments they were used to treat?

Throughout time, humanity has sought the means to cure and prevent illness and prolong life. At no point in history, however, was humanity more ignorant of disease and its causes than during the era commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, or the Medieval Era.

Medieval medicine was more of a blending of Church dogma and popular superstition than of science and medical understanding. The Church forbade the superstitious medicine of herbology as "witchcraft," and proclaimed that all ailments could be cured or prevented by proper obedience to God and the will of the Church. Severe illnesses, both physical and mental, were blamed on the Devil or divine retribution for some personal evil. However, since only the wealthy could typically afford the services of either an exorcist or a confessor, the common folk made do with superstitions and hack physicians, most of whom knew little more about the nature of illnesses or human anatomy than the patients whom they treated.

Even before birth, the commoner of the Medieval Era was subjected to the superstitious paranoia of an unlearned society. Often, since pregnant women were considered beneath the care of a learned physician, the mother was plied with all manner of herbs said to ensure a strong and healthy baby, or even meant to determine the sex of the unborn child. Due to the fragile nature of a human fetus, however, this was rarely a good idea. Since the fetus is incapable of combating poisons in the bloodstream as readily as an adult is, many of these so-called "remedies" often led to premature birth and even miscarriage. And, in the unsanitary conditions of a peasant's daily life, few premature babies ever survived infancy, and those who did were often sickly as children, and even as adults.

However, though prematurity was a greater risk, even a full-term baby had no assurances of a long or healthy life. Medieval superstition said that, to keep a baby from growing up sickly, it should be washed in the dirty dishwater. Many newborn babies received their very first baths in scummy, disease-laden water left from the most recent washing of pots and scrubbing of floors. And, since stringing a rabbit's foot about the baby's neck was believed to prevent disease, the child sucked further germs and parasites into his or her body by chewing on or playing with the unwashed paw of a dead animal. It is no surprise to learn, then, that few children survived infancy, and even fewer survived childhood.

In a child should be lucky enough to survive until adulthood -- which began roughly at the age of thirteen or fourteen - he or she could feel privileged to enter a world of men and women who rarely visited a doctor and never saw a dentist. They would, instead, succumb to the superstitions of their own parents, depending on the region in which they were raised. Many of these superstitions were more about preventing disease than actually curing it.

Preventive medicine in the Medieval Era consisted of such things as hanging a wreath of garlic bulbs in the house to draw away disease, or wearing a camphor ball around the neck to ward away serious illness. Even turning one's shoes upside down under the bed before sleep was said to prevent ailment.

However, regardless of these many practices at preventing illness, many people succumbed to disease. At that point, they turned to the local herbalist for cures. Admittedly, many herbalists were educated physicians and pharmacists whose methods proved so curative that they remain with us today. However, the vast majority were little more than snake-oil salesmen who produced a wide range of ineffectual ointments and tonics, accompanied by an even broader group of superstitions. For example, while modern science has reinforced the true herbalist's use of garlic as an aid against complaints such as dizziness (due to high blood pressure, a possibility unknown to the meager anatomical skills of Medieval doctors), chest pains, and failing appetite, many less-reputable herbalists prescribed garlic for problems such as bed-wetting and toothaches. Many also powdered down gemstones like amethyst and emerald to mix curative tonics for toothaches, headaches, gout, and eyestrain. The powdered stone, mixed with oils or water, often only added to the patient's discomfort.

When the herbalist failed to cure the ailment, the Medieval peasant turned to a physician, often referred to as a "Leech" because of his penchant for prescribing leeches as a cure. Many physicians in the later part of the Medieval Era were highly educated and skilled doctors, but the physician of the Dark Ages was a different matter completely. Later referred to as "surgeons," these doctors were peasants themselves, with little education, who attached leeches and performed bloodlettings, or the cutting of the skin, as a means of "draining out" the illness. However, this logic, often applied to those who suffered unexplainable fatigue or illness, typically proved fatal. Fatigue, typically caused by such ailments as anemia, high or low blood pressure, and diabetes, often escalated into unconsciousness, coma, and even death.

If the patient survived these sessions of bleeding at the hands of an uneducated surgeon, further therapies would be prescribed, consisting of tonics and potions that might kill the patient quicker than cure him. For example, ground coral was used as a cure for just about everything, and roasted mice were prescribed to cure measles, colds, and fevers, while washing one's face in the warm blood of a bat would restore eyesight and clear cataracts. Saliva, too, was believed to have curative properties, and surgeons often spit on the incisions or lacerations to "help them heal."

With all these prescriptions and procedures, designed to cure but more likely to kill, staying healthy in the Dark Ages was never an easy proposition, and recovery from illness was never guaranteed.

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