A few months ago, I researched a talk on medieval medicinal plants to give in the Leper Chapel in Cambridge at a re-enactment of Stourbridge Fair. The Fair was for a time the largest in medieval Europe. Although many of the ideas about health and healing seemed odd, medieval medics did use a significant number of plants which today have proven beneficial effects.
In this two-part blog, I’ll give a brief overview of medicine and disease in medieval times and mention some of the plants used.
The medieval world had different kinds of medical expertise available: physicians – university-educated and associated with the Church so forbidden from cutting a patient; barber-surgeons – cutters; apothecaries – remedy-makers who could also diagnose; and ‘wise-women’ – no formal training, but lots of knowledge!
Formal diagnoses were often made by considering the colour, quantity, smell and sometimes taste, of a patient’s urine. Charts (so-called ‘urine-wheels’) were available for comparison. The pulse was also compared with what was considered ‘normal’.
The body was believed to be made up of four humours – phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. Black bile was thought to come from the kidneys and spleen and lead to melancholy. Illness was due to an imbalance of the humours and treatment sometimes involved expulsion of the excess. As blood was the most important of the humours, blood-letting (carried out by a barber-surgeon, in which up to a quarter of the blood from the body was removed) was common but purgatives and emetics were also used.
Knowledge of anatomy was limited and usually based on the dissection of pigs – as they were the same size as a man it was thought they would have the same anatomy. However, the mystery illness known as right-sided sickness was a mystery because pigs don’t have an appendix!
Disease was believed to be a caused by exposure to foul air. Whooping cough, or the 100-day cough, arose if a child was close to dying flowers, particularly orchids. Strewing herbs and nosegays were commonly used. These were spread on the floor of homes and released a sweet smell when walked on. Herbs used included sweet woodruff and lavender. As well as smelling nice (so keeping foul air at bay), some of the herbs repelled insects (which we now know would have a beneficial effect by reducing insect transmission of disease). Similar herbs were used in nosegays – small bunches of fragrant herbs held close to the nose to reduce exposure to foul air. If you had to speak to a person who was ill, it was recommended that you stood upwind.
Medieval herbal medicine was most successful in the treatment of relatively minor complaints such as headaches. One suggested treatment involved using a poultice made by boiling barley with betony (Stachys officinalis) and vervain (Verbena officinalis). Both betony and vervain are still used today to treat headaches. Betony has proven anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, with active compounds including trigonelline and stachydrine. Considered to be a ‘magic bullet’ and used to treat dozens of conditions, a medieval Italian proverb urged, ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’.
Vervain was used for the treatment of about 30 different complaints, including fevers and as a poultice it was used for rheumatism, earache and to treat piles as well as for headaches. As the poultice stained the skin red, it was thought to be drawing blood from the body (so balancing the humours without blood-letting). It was sometimes known as Herb of the Cross as it was said to have been used to staunch the wounds of Christ or Simplers’ Joy. Simplers were people who collected herbs and sold them to apothecaries. Extracts of vervain show sleep-promoting, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. One of its important constituents is verbascoside.
Next time, I’ll look at two diseases which terrified the medieval population and plant-based anaesthesia.
Sources: Toni Mount (2016); Medieval Medicine Its Mysteries and Science; Amberley Publishing, ISBN 978 1 4456 5542 0
Wu Mingren (14th March 2018); The Urine Wheel and Uroscopy: What Your Wee Could Tell a Medieval Doctor; Ancient Origins, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/urine-wheel-and-uroscopy-your-wee-could-tell-medieval-doctor-009744
Mrs M. Grieve (1931); A Modern Herbal; Merchant Book Company Ltd, ISBN 1 904779 01 8
David Hoffmann (2003); Complete Illustrated Guide to the Holistic Herbal; Element Books, ISBN 0 00 713301 4
Gwenda Kyd (2018); The Plants of Dr Bach; Vervain Publishing