8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach

Stephanie Schoppert - March 16, 2017

Medical practices in the Middle Ages were making some progress but were still a far cry from what people today would want to experience. Some of the medicines and mixtures used did work and are still in use today. One concoction might even prove to be the answer to MRSA and other bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.

Leeches are currently approved by the FDA for use in treating blood pooling under the skin. But a few successes does not mean that there was not a whole lot of bad and quite a bit of weird in medieval medical practices.

Jar of Farts

One medieval medical practice that was not painful but also not very successful was the use of a jar of farts. A belief at the time was that disease, namely the black death, was caused by deadly vapors. Breathing in those vapors were what spread the disease or make the disease worse. To that end physicians theorized ways to keep people from inhaling those deadly vapors.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Medieval depiction of a physician treating a patient. Ancient-origins.net

So then came the idea of farts in a jar. Physicians told their patients to fart in a jar or capture the farts of others and keep them sealed in the jar. Then whenever a sickness like the black plague came through town they were supposed to open the jars and take deep breaths.

This wasn’t the only way that physicians tried to halt the deadly plague. Since they believed that the plague was spread by vapors, physicians would wear masks stuffed with garlic when visiting patients. This would prevent them from smelling the deadly vapors and thereby catching the plague. The mask was effective, the garlic less so.

While the jars were ineffective in curing or stopping the spread of the disease but it may have earned the name “therapeutic stink.” It may not have done anything medically but it might have given hope to those living in fear of the deadly plague that they might survive it. 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe perished between 1348 and 1350 due to the plague, so the fear was very real.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
13th century depiction of a hemorrhoid surgery. Weird-diseases.blogspot.com

Hot Iron for Hemorrhoids

If you went to a healer or a physician with hemorrhoids in the Middle Ages, you had a few options for treatment and they ranged from the painless and ineffective, to the painful and ineffective.

In the Middle Ages hemorrhoids were often called St. Fiacre’s curse, which is strange because St. Fiacre is the patron saint of hemorrhoid sufferers. It is said that St. Fiacre was working in his garden when he sat upon a stone. After sitting on the stone, he found that he was completely cured of his hemorrhoids and as he looked at the stone he saw the imprint of his hemorrhoids. Some physicians told their clients to sit upon the stone and hope for a cure from St. Fiacre. The stone exists to this day and people still sit upon it hoping to be cured.

If the stone was not enough to cure the hemorrhoids, then the physicians would resort to more extreme methods. Typically, this would involve cautery irons being inserted into the rectum in order to burn off the offending hemorrhoids. Other physicians would simply try and pull them off with their fingernails as was suggested by the Hippocrates.

Thankfully for those in the Middle Ages, real relief did arrive in the 12th century when Jewish physician Moses Maimonides wrote an extensive treatise on hemorrhoids. His recommendation to for hemorrhoids is the same one that is commonly used today, a sitz bath.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Engraving of a trepanning procedure from 1525. Wikipedia

Trepanning

Trepanning was one of the more gruesome medieval medical practices, but strangely enough it was one of the practices with a high survival rate. Trepanning was used to treat a range of issues including seizures, skull fractures, headaches, and mental illnesses.

Trepanning involved cutting a hole in the skull and exposing the dura matter. Once the dura matter was exposed it was believed that whatever bad things were causing the illness or strange behavior would be released from the brain. There was little else to the procedure other than cutting a relatively large hold in the head. Trepanning was only performed on adults and with equal frequency of men and women, however the frequency did increase with wealth and age. This suggests the procedure may have either been expensive or the wealthy were more likely to seek a cure for the strange behaviors of their relatives.

By the 16h century there were even specific devices created to make the trepanning process easier on the physician. The process was rarely easy on the patient. Even through there was knowledge of anesthesia, and there were mixtures used to put patients into deep sleep, they were very risky. Sometimes the mixture involved too much hemlock and the patient never woke up. In some cases, physicians opted to skip the risk involved with anesthesia.

There have been 8 skulls found from the period from the 6th to the 8th centuries that showed evidence of trepanning. Of the 8 skulls, 7 showed signs of healing and survival which suggests that there were low infection rates with trepanning and high survival rates when compared with other procedures like bloodletting.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Medieval depiction of an enema being performed. Kalzenere.com

Boar Bile Enemas

By the Middle Ages, enemas were growing in popularity. They had been used throughout history, but the Middle Ages truly saw the enema become something of a regular medical procedure. By the 15th century, there was even the invention of simple piston syringe enemas that made the process much easier for physicians.

As time went on there were devices created that would allow for self-administration by the 17th century and devices that would hide most of a woman’s backside so that the physician would only see what was necessary to administer the enema. The enema became very popular as it was so easy to use and it was quite versatile. It could be used with just lukewarm water, or in cases where something stronger was needed, thinned boar’s bile or vinegar was used.

Enemas became all the rage in France and were so popular that King Louis XIV was said to have as many as 2,000 enemas over the course of his life. He was even said to have an enema administered while he was sitting on the throne. He would just allow the ceremony to progress while his physician placed the clyster in his rectum and pushed the chosen fluid in using the syringe.

The procedure was often done for the same reasons that people have chosen to get enemas throughout history, as a way to relieve constipation. In the Middle Ages it was also thought to be useful in treating stomach aches or a range of other illnesses that often varied from physician to physician. Some believed that regular enemas would keep them in good health, which would explain the frequency of Louis XIV’s enemas, or perhaps the French King was perpetually constipated.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Detail of an illumination of ‘medicinae Canon’ of Avicenna. Wikimedia

The Cure for Quinsy

Not all medieval medical practices were gruesome and painful for the patient, but they could still turn your stomach. Often physicians would have certain concoctions that they would create that would cure different ailments but sometimes there seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the concoction. Many times, there were different animal parts mixed with herbs and only sometimes were the animals parts cooked before being consumed.

In order to cure a quinsy, which is a severely infected throat, there was a rather interesting process. First the physician would need a fat cat. The poor beast would then be flayed. Next the cat would be cleaned and the guts drawn out. Next the grease of a hedgehog would be mixed with the fat of a bear. Into this mixture, the physician would add fenugreek, sage, gum of honeysuckle, and virgin wax.

Once mixed it would be crumbled into small pieces and then stuffed inside the now hollow cat in much the same way that you would stuff a goose. The cat would then be roasted and the grease drippings would be collected. It was these grease drippings that would then be given to the patient to be swallowed in order to cure the infected throat.

While the warm liquid might have been soothing to the patient it is unlikely that it would have done very much for the infected throat. There is little record about whether or not this specific procedure was very successful with patients. This was during a period where medicine was more of trial and error than an exact science. Physicians would learn the success of their cures by whether their patients got better with each new strange mixture.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Depiction of Cataract Surgery. All-that-is-interesting.com/

Cataract Surgery

Cataracts have always been a problem for those who are getting older or face problems with their eyes. The 5th century BC is the first documented appearance of a type of cataract surgery. When the cataract had become so advanced that the entire lens was opaque, rigid, and heavy, the eye would be struck with a blunt object. This would cause the zonules which had been weakened due to the cataracts to break, causing the lens to dislocate. This would lead to slightly restored vision, but vision that was perpetually unfocused.

In medieval times the process somewhat improved by the standards of physicians of the time. The medieval procedure involved inserting a sharp object, such as a knife or large needle, through the cornea. Once inserted the sharp object would be used to force the lens out of its capsule. Once the lens was out of its capsule it would be pushed down to the bottom of the eye.

While this was sometimes successful in getting some very limited vision back to the patient it typically did little to improve the vision of the patient all while being rather uncomfortable. This process continued until Islamic medicine began to spread to medieval Europe. Then it was realized that a syringe could be used to extract cataracts by using the suction of the syringe.

From then on the process involved putting a hypodermic syringe into the white part of the eye and then removing the cataract through pulling back on the syringe and sucking it up. This process was successful at removing cataracts and more likely to actually improve the sight of the patient than the medieval methods.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Medieval depiction of bloodletting. Medievalists.net

Bloodletting

Bloodletting is one of the most well-known medieval medical methods. It came from the Greek idea of humors and that there were four humors, blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The idea was that many illnesses were caused by an imbalance of the humors, namely an excess of blood. So then came the idea of bloodletting to remove the excess blood and re-balance the humors. It was believed that women did this on their own at times through menstruation.

As the process progressed through the Middle Ages, a system was developed. It was believed that bloodletting near the affected area was the best way to a cure. It was also written that certain veins and locations would affect different organs or illnesses. Books and instructions were released for physicians to follow so that they could have the best results for their patients.

It was bloodletting that led to the distinction between a doctor and a surgeon. A physician in the Middle Ages was likely to recommend bloodletting but not likely to perform it, that was left to the barbers. The barber would be the one to cut the vein and drain the blood, sometimes not even under the supervision of the physician, so it was up to the barber to know the specific medical trends at the time.

Bloodletting was not a safe or reliable process. It was believed that enough blood had to be taken that the patient swooned or fainted. This created a delicate line between the right amount of blood and too much. It was not uncommon for a patient to be drained of too much blood and die or to have their wound get infected. It wasn’t until the 19th century that bloodletting really started to fall out of favor and was condemned as a dangerous and ineffective practice by physicians.

8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach
Medieval Physician and Pharmacist from a 15th century book on surgery by Hieronymus Brunschwig. Fineartamerica.com

Animal Cures

There were a number of different medieval medical treatments that involved using different animals. Different animals and animals parts were believed to have different healing effects on the patient. Many of the treatments had no real basis other than guesses or they were steeped in mythology and ancient practices. Insects could also be used. For example to treat jaundice a patient was to swallow nine lice mixed with ale every morning for a whole week.

One such cure was to wear a donkey skin to treat rheumatism. The patient was to wear the entire skin of the donkey, ensuring that all of their sore joints were covered by the hide. It was suggested that the skin not more worn more than fourteen days and not to wear it after it had begun to rot because that might invite other illness.

If a person was suffering from asthma the cure for that was simple. All the patient had to do was swallow some young frogs. It is unclear why the frogs were supposed to help cure asthma and there is no evidence that it would have been successful.

To cure gout the process was much more involved and similar to the treatment of quinsy. First the physician would take a red-haired dog and boil it in oil. Then the physician would add worms, pig’s marrow and a variety of different herbs to the pot. This would then be made into a mixture that could be smeared on the affected area.

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