Medieval Medicine and First Aid
I am hard at work on my soon-to-be-released middle grade chapter book The Lost Castle Treasure, the second book in the Sir Kaye series. I’ve also begun coordinating with illustrator Dave Allred to map out possible pictures for the book. In one of the scenes young Sir Kaye is “accidentally” tripped (by a not-so-nice knight) and on his way down he ends up with a black eye and cuts from broken glass. This of course requires some minor first aid, which reminded me a lot of my childhood. But what would a medieval mom do to patch up an injured child?
I began researching first aid and medical care in medieval times, and thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned with my blog readers. To help me out, Kathy Kerr, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in Georgetown, Texas, and a former member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval re-enactment group) has graciously agreed to answer a few questions on medieval medicine.
1) What was basic first aid like in medieval times (minor cuts and bruises)?
Common first aid practices included washing with whatever was handy, including (sometimes dirty) water, beer, wine, vinegar and other common drinks. Minor cuts might be smeared with honey (it is now known to have strong antibiotic properties) or have soothing poultices applied made from local herbs and mints. Usually minor injuries were left alone.
2) How did they treat severe injuries like major wounds and broken bones?
Major wounds—flooding with water or vinegar (see above), packing with herbs and poultices, then wrapping in strips of cloth. Ligation (sewing) of the wound was not unknown, and was practiced with regular sewing thread before the invention of cat gut. Honey, again, might be smeared onto the wound. Cautery was sometimes used to seal wounds and stop bleeding, especially after amputation.
Broken bones—bone setting was an art practiced through generations. Sometimes a Barber-Surgeon did bone setting, but most often it was an art unto itself. If broken bones were not properly set, infection could set in and cause early death (King Tut is one example, and possibly Henry VIII with his never-healed jousting wound). A bonesetter would carefully palpate the area first to size up the situation and then draw and pull the limb to align the bones. Then the broken limb would be wrapped in flannel strips and sometimes packed in comfrey paste (which formed a hard cast when dried) or casted with dried muds.
3) How did they treat infections from a simple sore throat to a major flu?
Local herb lore was used to find herbs to make a soothing tea or lozenge in most cases. Common ingredients were mint, licorice root, willow-tree bark (the basis for modern aspirin) and others depending on the area and time of year. Unfortunately, it was common to treat fevers as a “chill” and smother the patient in blankets in a stuffy room with a hot fire in the grate. Many died of dehydration. Leeches were sometimes used to draw the “evil humours” from the patient’s body. Blood-letting was also used to treat fevers. The instrument used to draw the blood was called a fleam, and it is commonly seen today on many medical symbols. There are some amazing pictures of medieval medical instruments and information here.
4) What did they do for dental care?
Barber-Surgeons would extract rotten teeth by first wiggling them loose and then pulling them out with plier-looking forceps. Otherwise, people would clean their teeth and try to freshen breath by chewing herbs like peppermint and rosemary, rinsing the mouth with vinegar or a solution made of herbs, and rubbing the teeth with coarse material like cheesecloth. They also used twigs as toothpicks.
5) What common medicines would you find in your average medieval home?
How about the wealthy?
Herbs were the main choice for treating illness. People used these herbs to make tinctures, poultices and drinks. Henbane was known to help joint pain when applied topically, mint for stomach aches and many other things, including snakebite. Dandelion was also used for snakebite. Horehound was not unknown and was used for cough and sore throat when mixed with honey. The rich might have access to the amazing foreign plant tobacco which was thought to cure plague. Mustard, garlic, onion and grease plasters might also be used on chest illnesses. Enemas were not uncommon, because bowel problems were abundant due to improper diet.
6) What medieval medicines/treatments are still used today?
Honey is still used today for its antibiotic properties, as are garlic and onion. Mint is a common soothing tea, as is chamomile. Horehound is still common in lozenges for sore throat. Willow bark was distilled into aspirin. Almost all the herbs used then are used now, whether in original or distilled forms.
7) Anything else you’d like to share about medieval medicine?
We’ve moved away from leeches, but they are actually coming back and being used in some post-surgical bleeding cases. Maggots are also used in cases of necrosis, although they weren’t really used medicinally in the past. Cautery is still used, but it’s laser or electric now, and painless. Bone setting is done surgically for the most part, but of course casting broken bones is still in common use, as are slings. A lot what was old is still with us.
Some helpful links for reading about ancient medicine: