10 Facts About Healthcare in the Middle Ages

Medicine in the Medieval period was imprecise and mixed with superstition. The advances made in Antiquity by the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were scarcely built upon and in some societies, much was forgotten.

Although by the 14th century medical education was growing in Western Europe, Church domination of all aspects of life naturally extended to medicine, further impeding any advanced understanding of the workings of the human body.

Here are 10 facts about medicine and healthcare in medieval times.

1. Eye surgery was conducted with a needle

Cataracts surgery was carried out with a pretty basic needle, which would make more than a few eyes water. This didn’t change until more advanced medical techniques arrived from the Arab world.

2. A surgeon might choose to bore a hole in your head

If you were unwell doctors would occasionally bore a hole in your skull. This was thought to alleviate pressure and was believed to be a cure for many conditions including epilepsy. Needless to say this procedure often proved fatal.

3. Doctors thought too much blood could be bad for you

A painting depicting the letting of blood.

A painting depicting the letting of blood.

Doctors believed in things called humours – fluids held within the body such as phlegm, bile and blood. Having too much or too little of these, they believed, could make you ill. This is why they often bled patients to relieve an excess of blood.

4. Sheep dung was a form of birth control

It was a long way from the morning after pill, but sheep dung was popularly used as a form of contraceptive.

5. Ill people were thought to be evil

In the Middle Ages much of what happened to us was thought to be down to the way we lived our lives. So people who contracted diseases were often believed to have been guilty of a sin.

6. Going on pilgrimage could cure disease

If you were ill one option could be to go on a long pilgrimage to a holy site.

7. The King’s hands could heal

Edward the Confessor was said to have healing hands.

Edward the Confessor was said to have healing hands.

English and French monarchs claimed to be able to heal the sick just by laying their hands on them. Edward the Confessor is the first King said to have this power, but Henry I was the first King to try and use it for political purposes.

8. Spiders had medicinal properties

Spiders and cobwebs held the cure for many diseases.

Spiders and cobwebs held the cure for many diseases.

Cobwebs, for example, were said to be a good cure for warts.

9. Rosemary was a form of toothpaste

In order to brush your teeth the best option was to put burned rosemary into a cloth.

10. Binge drinking was a bigger problem than today

As the Black Death raged across Europe, another plague was following in its wake – drunkenness. People mistakenly believed that alcohol would protect against the disease. Some followed this medicine so completely that they drank themselves to death.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.