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Medieval Medical Advice You Should Never Follow

In the medieval era, people treated medical advice like they were collecting trading cards of magical missteps. Forget evidence-based medicine; it was more like “Let’s play… Alexander Gabriel - January 29, 2024

In the medieval era, people treated medical advice like they were collecting trading cards of magical missteps. Forget evidence-based medicine; it was more like “Let’s play a game of ‘Guess What Ails You’ with a side of ‘Is That Unicorn Horn or Just a Really Fancy Goat Antler?'” Bloodletting was all the rage, as if the cure for everything lay in the depths of your veins, and if you had one too many humors, well, that’s what trepanation was for – just drill a hole in your head, and the evil spirits would be on their way out faster than a horse-drawn carriage on a medieval freeway.

And don’t get them started on miasma theory; they believed bad smells could literally kill you. In the medieval medical playbook, if you weren’t swallowing gemstones, wearing live animals as fashion accessories, or dancing under a full moon with a chicken leg, you weren’t really trying to heal. It’s a good thing modern medicine decided to skip the alchemy and embrace, you know, science.

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Bloodletting

Bloodletting in the Middle Ages was the medieval equivalent of trying to fix a computer by smashing it with a hammer – an attempt to solve health issues with questionable methods. Based on the ancient concept of balancing bodily humors, practitioners believed that draining a patient’s blood could restore equilibrium and treat various illnesses. Picture this: you walk into a dimly lit chamber, and a self-proclaimed expert brandishing a collection of sharp instruments greets you.

Need a cure for a headache? Let’s drain some blood. Feeling a bit feverish? How about a pint or two? The bleeding process involved leeches, lancets, or even cupping, leaving patients looking like they lost a battle with a particularly enthusiastic vampire. Despite its widespread use, bloodletting often did more harm than good, contributing to the weakening of already ailing patients. It wasn’t until the dawn of modern medicine that people realized letting blood spill like it was going out of style might not be the best prescription for wellness.

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Trepanation

In the Middle Ages, trepanation was the medieval remedy for everything from migraines to malevolent spirits. Imagine a world where, instead of aspirin, the solution to a throbbing headache was having a hole drilled into your skull. This daring procedure involved using a trepan, a specialized tool, to remove a circular section of bone from the skull, presumably to release pressure or allow evil spirits to make a swift exit.

It was the medieval version of creating a “vent” for your brain, but without the luxury of anesthesia or any solid understanding of anatomy. The trepanation trend wasn’t just for the faint of heart; it was for those brave enough to trust that a well-placed hole in the head was the key to better health. While some individuals might have survived this risky practice, it’s safe to say that modern medicine has thankfully moved beyond this cranial DIY approach to healing.

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Historic UK

Miasma Theory

The Middle Ages were not only a time of castles and knights but also of miasma theory, a belief that would make today’s epidemiologists cringe. Picture a world where foul odors were not just unpleasant, but they were thought to be the harbingers of disease. Miasma theory held that noxious “bad air” emanating from decomposing matter or stagnant water could spread illnesses. So, if you wanted to stay healthy, you had to plug your nose and avoid anything that smelled remotely unpleasant.

Towns, cities, and even hospitals were built with the goal of keeping the air as sweet as a medieval rose. Unfortunately, this theory led to misguided attempts to combat disease by focusing on purifying the air rather than understanding the actual causes. It wasn’t until the advent of the germ theory in the 19th century that people realized it was the invisible microbes, not the malodorous miasma, that were the real culprits behind many diseases. In retrospect, miasma theory seems like a fragrant but flawed chapter in the history of medical understanding.

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The Archaeological Box

Urine Diagnostics – But Not How You Think

In the Middle Ages, urine wasn’t just a waste product; it was a diagnostic goldmine. Urine was considered a window into the body’s inner workings, and medieval physicians fancied themselves as liquid fortune tellers. Picture a scene where patients would dutifully present their vials of precious bodily fluid to eager practitioners.

The color, smell, and taste (yes, taste!) of urine were meticulously analyzed to diagnose ailments ranging from the mundane to the mysterious. A dark yellow hue might indicate fever, while a cloudy appearance might suggest an impending illness. The brave physicians of the time even went so far as to taste the urine to glean additional insights – a practice that modern healthcare thankfully abandoned. While the intentions may have been earnest, the effectiveness of urine-based diagnosis was dubious at best.

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Net Doctor

Forced Vomiting

In medieval times, the prescription for many ailments involved a rather uncomfortable remedy: forced vomiting. Forget about gentle cough syrup or soothing teas; if you were feeling unwell, the solution was to induce a hearty session of retching. Practitioners believed that expelling the contents of the stomach could rid the body of perceived toxins and bring about a miraculous recovery.

This method, known as emesis, was often administered through the ingestion of substances like mustard seeds or even concoctions specifically designed to trigger vomiting. Patients would be subjected to this less-than-appetizing treatment, all in the hope of purging the body of whatever malevolent force was causing their discomfort. While the intentions might have been to cleanse, the process itself likely left many feeling worse than before, with the medieval remedy proving that not all medical advice stood the test of time.

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Strong Laxatives

If you were feeling under the weather, the remedy was clear: unleash the bowels! Medieval physicians believed that forcefully purging the digestive system could rid the body of impurities and restore balance. Patients were subjected to potent laxatives made from a concoction of herbs, roots, and sometimes downright questionable substances.

The idea was to cleanse the body from the inside out, with the hope that a thorough intestinal evacuation would flush away whatever ailed you. Unfortunately, the side effects of these strong laxatives were often harsh, leaving patients weakened and dehydrated. It’s a relief that modern medicine has taken a more nuanced and evidence-based approach, sparing us from the days when a case of the sniffles might have been treated with a laxative-induced storm in the digestive tract.

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Applying Hot Irons

In the medieval times, when bleeding or wounds needed staunching, the go-to solution was as brutal as it was rudimentary – applying hot irons. Picture a scenario where a wounded knight or ailing villager faced the prospect of having searing metal pressed against their flesh to stop the flow of blood. Cauterization, as this method was known, involved heating iron instruments until they were red-hot and then forcefully applying them to wounds.

The idea was to seal blood vessels, preventing further bleeding and theoretically promoting healing. This practice, while undoubtedly painful and traumatic, was a desperate attempt to control hemorrhage and infection in an era devoid of modern surgical techniques. The sizzling sound of flesh meeting metal must have echoed through medieval chambers, a stark reminder of the crude measures taken in the name of medical intervention.

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Wikipedia

Unicorn Horns

Despite the absence of actual unicorns in the landscape, healers of the time claimed to possess powdered unicorn horn, promoting it as a cure for various ailments. Whether one was dealing with a persistent headache, an unyielding fever, or a troublesome cold, the magical properties attributed to the unicorn horn were believed to possess unparalleled healing virtues.

The paradox, however, lies in the fact that unicorns, being entirely mythical creatures, lack real horns that could be ground into medicinal powders. Nevertheless, this fantastical belief persisted, reflecting an era when the boundary between reality and imagination was as hazy as the illustrations in a medieval manuscript.

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Bezoars as Antidotes

In medieval times, the bezoar stone held a mystical reputation as an antidote to various poisons. Derived from the stomachs of certain animals, especially goats, these peculiar formations were believed to possess extraordinary protective properties. In scenarios where an individual had ingested a potentially lethal substance, the bezoar was presented as a miraculous remedy.

The prevailing belief was that these stones could neutralize toxins, making them a universal antidote against poisons. Whether the poison was intentional or accidental, the bezoar was regarded as a magical safeguard against harm. While the effectiveness of bezoars as antidotes remains questionable, the medieval reliance on these stones reflects the captivating blend of folklore and medicine during that era.

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Gem Stone Elixirs

This was a period when healers believed that pulverized gemstones held mystical properties capable of curing a spectrum of ailments. This vibrant assortment of powdered jewels, from rubies to sapphires, was mixed into elixirs and imbibed with the hope of channeling the inherent energies of these precious stones for health benefits.

Whether one sought relief from a persistent malady or an elixir for eternal youth, the medieval mindset embraced the belief that the essence of gemstones could be harnessed through ingestion. While the concept of ground gemstone elixirs may sound like a fantastical potion from a fairytale, it was a testament to the intriguing fusion of mysticism and medicine that characterized the medieval understanding of healing.

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Mercury

Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, was believed to possess mystical properties capable of purging the body of impurities and promoting healing. Physicians of the time prescribed various forms of mercury, including mercurial ointments and vapors, with the intention of treating conditions ranging from skin ailments to venereal diseases.

Unbeknownst to the practitioners, these treatments often resulted in severe mercury poisoning, causing symptoms that included tremors, hallucinations, and even death. The misguided use of mercury in medieval medical practices stands as a stark reminder of the perils of medical experimentation without a solid understanding of toxicity.

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Introducing Medieval Christianity

Prayers or Pilgrimage

In the medieval era, when the ailments of the body perplexed even the most skilled physicians, an alternative approach emerged that had less to do with potions and poultices and more with divine intervention – prayer and pilgrimage. Seeking solace in the hands of a higher power, individuals believed that fervent prayers and journeys to holy sites could bring about miraculous healing.

Pilgrimages to revered shrines were undertaken with the conviction that the sacred atmosphere could invoke divine assistance in curing ailments. It was a time when faith played a pivotal role in the healing process, with individuals relying on the belief that spiritual devotion could remedy physical afflictions.

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Astro Talk

Astrological Medicine

Astrological medicine held sway in the medieval era as a peculiar blend of celestial mysticism and healing arts. In this bygone age, practitioners believed that the positions of celestial bodies influenced the human body and its ailments. Each zodiac sign and planet was associated with specific body parts, and the alignment of stars was thought to dictate the optimal times for medical treatments.

This resulted in a curious fusion of astronomy and medicine, where astrologers doubled as healers, and medical advice often depended on the alignment of planets. Whether determining the auspicious moment for bloodletting or prescribing herbal remedies based on astrological charts, the medieval mindset intertwined the cosmic and the corporeal.

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Simply Recipes

Moldy Bread Poultices

A peculiar remedy, practitioners believed that the natural fermentation and mold on the bread possessed healing properties. These poultices, often composed of a mixture of bread and various herbs, were applied to wounds, sores, or swellings with the expectation of promoting recovery.

The use of moldy bread was rooted in the limited understanding of microbial processes during the medieval period. While the intent was to harness the perceived medicinal qualities of the mold, the lack of knowledge about hygiene and potential risks associated with infection meant that the outcomes of such treatments were unpredictable.

Herbal Remedies
Adamant Living

Herbalism with Limited Knowledge

Armed with a blend of folklore, trial and error, and a sprinkling of inherited wisdom, medieval herbalists endeavored to harness the healing potential of various plants. The knowledge of herbs was often passed down through generations, and books like the “Herbarium” or “Tacuinum Sanitatis” offered insights, albeit with a blend of myth and practical advice.

The herbalists of the time sought remedies for an array of maladies, from common ailments to more mysterious afflictions. Despite the earnest efforts, the lack of scientific scrutiny led to a mix of effective and ineffective treatments. While medieval herbalism undoubtedly laid the groundwork for botanical knowledge, it also reflects the precarious balance between the healing power of nature and the limitations imposed by a lack of systematic understanding.

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Sympathetic Magic

Practitioners believed in the principle of “like produces like,” where mimicking desired outcomes through symbolic actions could influence healing. This concept was applied to medical treatments, with the belief that substances resembling body parts or ailments could cure or alleviate those specific afflictions.

Whether using a plant with a similar shape to a human organ or employing rituals that mirrored the desired outcome, sympathetic magic played a role in the diverse landscape of medieval medicine. While the underlying belief in the interconnectedness of symbols and reality demonstrated the fascinating fusion of magical thinking and healing, the effectiveness of such practices was often a matter of faith rather than evidence.

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Lighthouse Dental Care

Tooth Extraction by Non Professionals

In the medieval era, dealing with toothaches meant enduring a dental care scene that was far from gentle, particularly when it came to tooth extraction by non-professionals. In this setting, individuals sought relief by turning to anyone with a robust pair of pliers or a basic understanding of anatomy. Barbers or even blacksmiths often assumed the role of ad-hoc tooth-pullers, relying on sheer force in the hopes that removing the troublesome tooth would alleviate the pain.

Without the luxury of anesthesia or proper sterilization methods, the experience was undoubtedly agonizing and carried the risk of infection. This makeshift approach to dentistry reflected an era when dental practices were in their nascent stages, and the focus was more on survival than on providing comfortable care.

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Wikipedia

Amulets and Charms

During medieval times, amulets and charms held significant sway as wearable protectors against the whims of fate and illness. People adorned themselves with these talismanic trinkets, firmly convinced that the materials, symbols, or inscriptions held protective or healing powers. Whether crafted from metals, gemstones, or even plants, these charms were thought to ward off malevolent forces and promote well-being.

From the intricately designed to the more modest, amulets were worn as a form of spiritual armor against the uncertainties of life. The medieval wearer sought reassurance and a sense of control in a world where the boundaries between the mystical and the tangible were often blurred. While the belief in amulets and charms has persisted in various forms across cultures, contemporary society tends to rely more on evidence-based medicine than on the protective magic of wearable artifacts.

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Wearing Live Animals for Healing

In the medieval pursuit of unconventional remedies, wearing live animals was considered a peculiar but earnest medical treatment. Individuals sought healing by adorning themselves with living creatures, believing that the symbiotic relationship between the wearer and the animal could transfer curative energies.

From wearing a live toad to absorb illness to carrying a small bird in a cage for vitality, these practices were rooted in a mystical understanding of nature. The wearer, in this scenario, became a living vessel for the purported healing properties of the animal. While this approach to medicine may seem whimsically fantastical today, it reflects the intricate interplay between the natural world and medieval beliefs about the transfer of vitality.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/science/leeching

https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/hole-in-the-head-trepanation/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/miasma-theory

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(99)90356-2/fulltext#:~:text=The%20inspection%20of%20urine%20had,only%20commonly%20used%20diagnostic%20method.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/emesis

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/25121-laxatives

https://www.healthline.com/health/cauterizing-a-wound

https://www.history.com/news/unicorn-horns-royal-protection-poison-antidote

https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/bezoars-and-foreign-bodies/bezoars

https://gemstonewell.com/blogs/news/gem-water

https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/mercury-was-considered-a-cure-until-it-killed-you/article_e1b3e3a9-f0d1-573a-848c-4b3119b6426a.html

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/The-Middle-Ages

https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/astrology-and-medicine

https://health.ri.gov/healthrisks/mold/#:~:text=Exposure%20to%20a%20large%20number,causing%20more%20severe%20allergic%20reactions.

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b248e800-1326-0131-509d-58d385a7bbd0

https://hekint.org/2018/03/20/marvailous-cures-sympathetic-medicine-connecting-europe-china/

https://www.wayneoralsurgery.com/blog/what-was-dental-health-like-in-the-middle-ages/

https://www.jstor.org/stable/751363

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-veterinary-magic-of-the-middle-ages-180981040/

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