During the Black Death, many came to believe that urine had health benefits. So they soaked themselves in the stuff. Plague victims were bathed in urine several times a day, in the belief that it would either cure them, or at least alleviate the symptoms. Of course, it did no such thing – it just caused them to spend their final hours reeking of urine. However, urine did not cause them to stink anywhere near as bad as the next cure. The Black Death often caused pus-filled swellings, known as buboes, to erupt all over the skin. One treatment was to lance open the buboes to allow the disease to leave the body. So far, not so bad. Then a special potion was to be applied to the lanced buboes. A potion in which poo featured prominently.
The cuts in the plague victims’ bodies were slathered with a concoction of tree resin, white lily roots, and human excrement. The fetid paste was pushed and packed firmly into the open wounds, then tightly wrapped to keep the nauseating mixture inside. Another plague remedy was to kill Jewish people. Jews were often persecuted by Christians, who accused them of everything from killing Jesus to murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. When the Black Death erupted, many Christians blamed the Jews, who were accused of deliberately poisoning wells to cause the plague. Some Jewish innocents were tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the wells. The belief in Jewish culpability was further buttressed by the observation that the plague did not strike Jews as often as it did Christians. Which in reality, was a function of Jews practicing better hygiene.
Thousands of Jews were massacred in attempts to ward the Black Death. Some were summarily executed, others were crammed into their homes or synagogues which were then set alight, and others were murdered in various, fiendishly cruel ways. The fact that none of the preceding cures worked reinforced the belief that their misfortunes were the result of divine displeasure. God was mad at mankind for its sins, so he sent the plague as punishment. Many reasoned that God might stop punishing them if they punished themselves. So they flogged themselves. Flagellants – people who mortified their flesh with whips – had been around since at least the 1200s. However, the practice peaked during the Black Death, when flagellant groups arose spontaneously throughout Europe. Religious zealots paraded around, seeking atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance.
Practices like trying to achieve redemption through flagellation were most popular in times of crisis, and flagellant numbers soared during the Black Death. The Church condemned the practice, but the movement spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Clad in white robes, large groups of flagellants – sometimes in the thousands – roamed the countryside, dragging crosses while flogging themselves and each other into a religious frenzy. In one episode, hundreds of flagellants arrived in London from Flanders. They paraded twice a day, stripped to the waist, and flogged themselves bloody with three tailed scourges, some of them knotted and with nails affixed to them. Needless to say, flagellation proved as ineffective as all the other remedies for warding off the plague. The practice proved a temporary fad, and enthusiasm for flagellation waned as suddenly as it had arisen.
Medieval People Didn’t Drink Booze Instead of Water
It is often said that people in centuries past only drank beer and wine in lieu of water, because water was too often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is untrue. In the Middle Ages, for example, water was the most popular drink – as it was throughout all of humanity’s existence, for that matter. After all, water is free (mostly). It is true that people in the Middle Ages did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. While contamination was a problem, medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew enough to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water.
In short, medieval people had enough common sense and common knowledge to know that swampy, muddy, and cloudy water was bad for their health. Medieval health manuals and medical texts actually praised water for its health benefits – so long as it came from good sources. Medieval authorities went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed ‘The Conduit’ in the 1200s, using lead pipes to bring fresh water from a spring outside the city walls to London’s center, where people had free access to it.
Medieval People (Luckily) Believed That Water Was Good for Their Health
Although medieval people did not avoid water per se, they preferred beer and wine. Provided they could get and afford such beverages. People did drink a whole lot of beer and ale and wine in those days, but it was not because their water was bad. Instead, they consumed those alcoholic beverages simply because they liked both their taste and effect. The authorities knew and catered to that preference, such as during public celebrations in London. For example, the return of Edward I from the Crusades and the coronation of Richard II saw London stop the flow of water in its pipes, and its replacement with wine for a day.
For those who could afford it, wine was the drink of choice. However, like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, medieval Europeans did not drink their wine neat. Instead, they usually mixed it with water to dilute its power. For those who could not afford wine, beer and ale were plentiful and cheap. It should be noted, however, that beer and ale back then were far weaker than they are today. Also, considering the long days and hard labor medieval workers put in, whether in the fields or shops or other employment, beer and ale did more than just quench thirst. They also provided a significant intake of calories throughout the day to keep them going.
A visit to the dentist is an unwelcome experience to many, and teeth removal could be as unpleasant as, well… having teeth removed. But whatever one thinks of a dental visit today, it is nothing like the horrors that once passed for dentistry. For example, in nineteenth century England, dental health and hygiene standards were abysmal, and teeth frequently went bad in early adulthood. Whenever a tooth rotted, it required a visit to the neighborhood barber/ surgeon, who yanked it out with pliers, without anesthetic.
That led to some odd gift giving. To spare their kids the misery of having to go through that kind of pain several times in their lifetimes, some parents opted for “full teeth removal”, as a present to their offspring when they grew up. “Full teeth removal” meant exactly that: yank out all the teeth from the mouth, and replace them with dentures. Full teeth removal was considered such a fine gift, that it was frequently given to brides as a wedding present.
Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who advanced the notion that the universe’s essence is constant change. To that end, he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“. It captured the notion that everything, like droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not perceptible. Heraclitus also propagated the notion of a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with things exhibiting contrary properties.
Unfortunately, Heraclitus is probably best known nowadays for the bizarre health cure he prescribed himself to cure an illness: coating himself in cow dung. It killed him. Heraclitus was a highly introspective man. He did not learn his philosophy from other philosophers, but was self-taught. Critical of other philosophers, Heraclitus had a dim view of humanity, and loathed mobs and democracy. He preferred rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that a philosopher king would be the ideal ruler. Deeming wealth a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they would be cursed with wealth as punishment for their sins. In short, Heraclitus was a misanthrope.
Heraclitus’s misanthropy made him avoid contact with other people for long stretches, in which he wandered the wilderness alone, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“. His life came to a weird end, as a result of his affliction with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities. However, it was not the illness that killed him, but the cure. Healers could offer him neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus, the self-taught philosopher, sought to apply his self-teaching skills to medicine and heal himself.
He tried an innovative health cure by covering himself in cow dung. Heraclitus theorized that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to be immobilized by the cow dung drying around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs that came upon him. They ate him alive.
In ancient times, long before modern medicine or the concept of medicine as a professional discipline existed, people did not have a firm grasp on why some women got pregnant and others did not. They also had no way to predict pregnancy, or to tell the gender of a fetus in a woman’s womb. That did not stop some ancient healers – whether they were charlatans or whether they simply acted on sincerely held but mistaken beliefs – from taking a stab at it.
Some of those attempts even worked. One of the earliest written records of a pregnancy test was found in an Ancient Egyptian papyrus that dates to around 1350 BC. It called for a woman who might be pregnant to pee on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days. According to that test: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all“.
This Ancient Egyptian Pregnancy Test Actually Worked More Often Than Not
When the Ancient Egyptian pee-on-wheat-and-barley pregnancy test was subjected to modern scientific examination in 1963, it turned out that there might actually have been something to it. To be sure, the test did nothing to predict whether the fetus was male or female. However, it did not do too badly when it came to the detection of whether a woman was pregnant or not. 70 percent of the time, the pee of pregnant women actually promoted growth in wheat and barley.
By contrast, the pee of non-pregnant women (or men) did not positively impact plant growth. It was the earliest known example of testing for pregnancy by detecting something unique in the urine of pregnant women. Scholars identified this test as the first recorded in history similar to modern pregnancy tests: it identified something in the pee of pregnant women that is not present in the pee or those who are not with child. The elevated levels of estrogen in pregnant women’s pee might have been the key to the test’s success.
As seen above, the pee-on-plants pregnancy test actually worked more often than not. Another Ancient Egyptian pregnancy test, albeit a less successful one, revolved around garlic. Women who might be pregnant placed a clove of raw garlic next to their cervix when they went to bed at night. When they woke up the next morning, if the sulfuric taste of garlic had migrated to their mouth, they were thought to be pregnant. However, modern scientific tests have not supported the effectiveness of the garlic pregnancy test.
Egyptian men also had a special use for garlic. Ancient Greek philosopher Charmidas wrote that Egyptian husbands chewed garlic cloves on their way home from their mistresses. That way, their wives would not suspect that anybody would have been kissing them with such bad breath. Other ancient cultures ascribed various health benefits to garlic, from a rabies cure to headache relief. Faith in garlic’s benefits lasted for quite some time. The Roman naturalist Pliny thought garlic could sap a magnet’s power, while Roman legionaries were fed garlic in the belief that it would give them courage. Either that, or repel the enemy with their garlic breath.
Ancient Romans Swore by the Health Benefits of Gladiator Body Fluids
Ancient Romans had mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes. The gladiators’ constant training turned them into impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles glistening in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that made gladiators the objects of fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. If the gladiator fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers stood in the way – it might be gratified another way.
Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought after commodities in Ancient Rome. Rich women were willing to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators. The Romans used a curved metal blade, called a strigil, to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing. That is how they scraped sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. It would then be collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers would often apply the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their faces, as a type of facial cream. Others mixed it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of women of status.
Gladiator Blood Was Highly Prized as a Health Cure
Gladiator blood was also highly sought after. Many women applied the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accoutrements, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as particularly virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using gladiator blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine and ingested that way. Gladiator blood’s usefulness was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also believed to have health benefits, particularly in treating epilepsy.
As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink the warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”
Victorians Thought Fast Trains Would Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out of Their Bodies
When trains first entered service in the nineteenth century, many feared that their speed would prove lethal to passengers. New locomotives, such as the pioneering Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, were capable of maximum speeds of 28 mph. Quite slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds – unless they were falling off a cliff or the such. The perceived risk of such unprecedented velocities was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers – including many doctors – theorized that human physiology could not withstand travel at speeds faster than those of a galloping horse. Train alarmists reasoned that passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially lethal results.
Women were thought to be especially at risk, as it was feared that high train speeds would blow their uteruses out of their bodies. The paranoia about train speeds killing people with G forces eventually receded. Trains proliferated, and nobody died because their hearts or lungs were flattened against their backs, and no women had their uteruses fly out of their bodies. However, the early fears were replaced by another bizarre fear, this one of a danger to mental health instead of physical health. By the 1850s, Victorians worried that the steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, injured passengers’ brains and drove people insane.
Victorians Thought Train Rides Were Hazardous to Mental Health
Sensationalist media whipped up the frenzy. An illustrative example occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England. An armed passenger went crazy and attacked windows to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern frenzy while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.
The day’s newspapers and mental health professionals linked that nutjob’s bouts of madness to train travel. However, rather than reason that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel caused his mental illness. The belief persisted, well into the twentieth century, that the speed and motion of trains drove people mad. The pattern of flawed analysis that confused causation with correlation repeated itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a moving train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed for causing the craziness.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading