6 horrifying and weird medieval medical practices

Originally posted on MIMS.

During the medieval period, medicine was extremely basic, crude, and often painful. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant time to be a patient, but if you were at life’s mercy, you didn’t really have much of a choice in terms of obtaining medical assistance.

Here are a few strange and horrific facts from the days when it was thought that washing hands meant you weren’t a real doctor.

1. Surgeons inflict pain for reputation

Medieval surgery was often barbaric. Surgeons – or chirurgeons as they were called – understood little of human anatomy, anaesthetics, and antiseptic techniques. These chirurgeons were not exactly precise with their cuts at all, although one might say that they had the finesse of a butcher, and did not care at all if they were inflicting pain on their patients. In fact, surgeons who work gently were mocked to be timid, weak, and inexperienced.

2. Medieval psychiatry

Although psychiatry is a very young field, the medieval kind was very, very brutal. A suggested treatment regimen for the mentally ill included tying up the arms and legs, putting their feet in salt water and pulling their hair and nose while squeezing the toes and fingers tightly. As if those were not harsh enough, the patient would often have pigs squealing in their ears. But it doesn’t end here.

Other regimens included putting a feather or a straw in the patient’s nose, to cause a sneeze before burning human hair under the nose, and for some odd reason, the back of the head is shaved.

3. St Paul’s potion for stomach problems

This potion, supposedly invented by St Paul, was to be drunk. It has an extensive list of ingredients: liquorice, sage, willow, roses, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cormorant blood, mandrake, dragon’s blood and three kinds of pepper.

What purposes might such ingredients have? Starting with liquorice, it is good for the chest and was used to treat coughs and bronchitis. Sage was thought to improve blood flow to the brain and help with memory. Willow contains salicyclic acid, a component for aspirin. And then fennel, cinnamon, and ginger are carminatives that relieve the intestinal gases and a colicky stomach.

Cormorant blood (or that of any other warm-blooded creature) adds iron for anemia. Mandrake, although poisonous, acts like sleeping pill if used in small doses. And finally, we have dragon’s blood, which is not blood at all and certainly did not originate from a giant fire-breathing flying lizard. It is, however, the bright red resin of the tree Dracaena draco, native to Morocco, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. Modern research has shown that it has antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-viral and wound-healing properties, and it is still used in some parts of the world to treat dysentery.

4. No tooth-fairies, only the Tooth-man

If one had a tooth-ache, or needed to have a wisdom tooth removed, one would have to wait until the carnival comes to town, when the “Tooth-Man” arrives. The Tooth-Man was a medieval dentist that travelled town to town with musicians, acrobats, and jugglers. You can spot him easily in a crowd from his point cap and necklaces of trophy teeth. He might have travelled with the musicians and other drummers for a reason: to cover up the agonising screams of his patients.

5. Snail slime for burns and scalds

This was a simple, do-it-yourself remedy anyone could do to reduce blistering and pain. Simply take a live snail and rub its slime against the affected area and it’ll heal! Modern research has shown that snail slime contains antioxidants, antiseptic, anaesthetic, anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and antiviral properties, as well as collagen and elastin, vital for skin repair.

6. Dog’s blood and charred skull

Now, we generally know that the dead do have some after-life activities, but in the middle ages, it was believed that there was magic in corpses and bits and pieces of the dead sometimes get turned into medicine. One medieval doctor might give as a prescription, a drink made by mixing the blood of a dog with a dead man’s skill that had been burned to white ashes, and with a grounded up part of the upper head.

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