Medieval Medicine and Remedies

For a thousand years, themedieval medicine gradually enriched itself with knowledge and discoveries, with contrasting phases of growth and stagnation. Innumerable and extremely varied, certain medicinal preparations tempting by their sweetness and their effectiveness are still used today. Other remedies are full of paradoxes because science, religion, magic and cruelty combine for those who suffer, sometimes causing their ills to worsen. A few eminent researchers have, however, contributed to the advancement of knowledge.

The founders of medicine

Admired by the Greeks, Egyptian medicine has been a benchmark in the medicine of the Christian West for millennia. The medical papyri mention more than 700 healing substances, plants, animals, minerals, composing more than a thousand remedies often associated with incantations to various gods and demons. In the fifth century before our era, Hippocrates himself admired the Egyptians from whom he took the medicinal forms mentioned in his "Aphorisms of the Corpus Hippocratum" whose principles will be part of medical education until the 18th century.

Aulus corrnelius Celsus Roman physician, is the author of a precious collection of advice and remedies called “de re medica”. Pliny the Elder, compiles the known remedies in his "natural history". His medical texts are copied and distributed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Contemporary of Pliny, Dioscorides, Greek military doctor is the author of the work "De matéeria medica" concerning in particular the medicinal plants. Thanks to the human dissections authorized around 300 before our era, the school of Alexandria improves the knowledge of anatomy and medical knowledge. After the fire in Alexandria, Constantinople became an important medical center from the 4th to the 7th century.

Alongside a medicine which somehow proves its worth, coexists a hazardous, dangerous practice of medicine, which offers a number of treatments and drugs that could not be more incongruous. From the end of the 11th century, the addition of new and expensive ingredients widened the gap between preparations intended for the rich and those for the poor. Costly or not, the treatments encompass more and more diverse components over the centuries and foreign contributions.

From apothecaries-grocers to pharmacists

The separation between doctors and preparers of remedies is done little by little, according to the periods and the places. The monastic orders whose mission is to treat the sick and cultivate medicinal plants consult the Receivers (collections of remedies) and combine the functions of doctors and 'apoticarius'. The rare lay doctors themselves prepared their remedies until the beginning of the 13th century, then the first preparers and sellers of remedies belonging to the corporation of grocers appeared.

Also called apothecaries, they had to apply doctors' prescriptions to the letter, without substituting one plant for another. A whole set of causes (prohibition of monks by different councils to treat in convents, influence of doctors trained in faculties) led to the separation of the two professions. Over the centuries, the profession of pharmacist replaced that of apothecary and required increasingly long studies.

The four moods

Hipocrates established the importance of the humours of the human body: yellow bile, black bile, blood, lymph which, by analogy with the four elements (fire, air, earth and water) each have their own quality: hot , dry, cold and wet. Their imbalance, the cause of many diseases, is determined, among other things, by examining the urine and the pulse. To compensate for the deficiencies or the excesses of these humours it is necessary to use plants (or other elements) having a contrary effect. This balance requires a precise choice of ingredients which depends on the opinion of practitioners but they, sometimes dubious about the effectiveness of certain recipes or certain plants, recommend one thing and its opposite which is not very reassuring. ! In 1527 Paracelsus appointed to the chair of medicine in Basel, protested against the theory of humor without however succeeding in eliminating the principle.

The culture of the "simple"

The medicine practiced in convents, based on plants grown in square gardens (beds carefully bordered with boxwood "the herbularii") is transposed into the people and perpetrated orally. These so-called "simple" herbs are still used today for their various properties, alongside official medicine (without the incantations of the time).

Sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, lavender, tansy, savory, oregano, madonna lily, hyssop, rue, bay leaf sauce, lungwort, comfrey, cumin, borage, fennel ... etc. prepared alone or in combination allow to relieve a number of small ailments. Some of these recipes have come down to us modified or supplemented as evidenced by a large number of herbal medicine books.

Hildegarde of Bingen

Famous for her work in medicine, the Benedictine Abbess Hildegarde de Bingen (1098-1179) marked all of Europe by her influence in various fields (political, musical, philosophical and medical) and by her prophetic visions. A past master in psychosomatic medicine and the art of healing by plants, she heals both bodies and souls, proclaiming that the spirit of the woman of the Middle Ages is in all points comparable and equal to that of the man which does not fail to shock the senior members of the clergy and the German nobility. His medical works have defied time still making reference.

Health, diet and cuisine in the Middle Ages

The close relationship between medicine and food has been known for millennia. Diets are prescribed based on the time of year, the patient's age, temperament, and health issues. There is no question of giving hot and dry foods such as pepper or onion to angry people, beneficial to phlegmatic people.

Butter, considered to be a real medicine, treats dry coughs and lung wounds, because it softens and purifies the wounds. Cereals, wheat, barley, rye, oats and especially spelled have many virtues. Garlic, which the '' villains '' often use and the nobles scarcely are still recognized for its qualities but its use is curbed by the tenacity of its scents. The '' pore '' made from cabbage and leeks is cooked for a long time so as not to '' cause a black smoke that rises to the head ''! ..

Cabbage, considered one of the best remedies, prevents drunkenness and the urine of the one who has eaten it is kept as a remedy for the nerves, in which young children can be bathed in prevention of debility. Asparagus with the addition of cumin dispels 'flatus' in the stomach and colon, clears eyesight, relieves chest and back pain.

The fruits

Fruits rarely recommended raw enter in many preparations especially figs (supposed to extinguish fever and cause sweat) and grapes, but according to Platearius they nourish, but make the flesh '' more swollen than firm ''. Quince cooked with honey comfort digestion, as for pears cooked with fennel and honey according to the recipe of the Mesnagier de Paris they remove migraine, annihilate all imaginable bad moods.

Eating chestnuts before and after a meal heals the liver and brain and consumed raw restores strength and joie de vivre to depressed people.

Unusual remedies from medieval medicine

The soot of the very prized chimneys, is a treasure of the medicine to be preserved with care to cure the inflammations and the frostbite. Fine slate powder, horse hoof horn, calcined oyster scales incorporated into pork fat or butter serve as an ointment against pain and bruises.

Capable of performing miracles, the “beozard” (stone of gall condensed into a small ball in the stomachs of certain animals) is highly sought after, prepared grated, alone or in wine, set in a precious jewel, worn around the neck. melancholy, cures plague, epilepsy, smallpox, dysentery, protects from snakes and bewitchments.

The "castoreum" extracted from the musk gland of the beaver, dried and reduced to powder is used in many recipes intended to treat convulsions, paralysis, colds, stomach pains, possibly associated with ivory, coral , baked gold, silver, pearls ...

The minerals

Incorporated into many remedies appear disturbing mineral extracts: green vitriol (name of sulfuric acid, introduced by the Persian Rhazès doctor and alchemist) verdigris, silver foam, mercury, petroleum (called stone oil) highly sought after to attract moods. The contributions of ancient or Arab medicines, the writings of the school of Salerno (transmitted among others by the Crusaders) allow the addition of stones, various minerals, exotic plants, alcohol, etc. to medicinal preparations.

Urine and feces

Infallible in its properties, the urine collected in a glass vial called "matula" has remained one of the bases of medicine since its simple observation makes it possible to indicate the patient's weak points and when consumed, it also serves as a medication. there is no more sovereign remedy in the world '' because it cures ringworm and suppurating ulcers, inveterate wounds and often mixed with plants '' heals from head to toe ''.

The droppings and various excrements in particular human, (based on the principle of the man decreed as the noblest of creatures) enter, cooked or mixed with other ingredients in the medical preparations. The excrements of a young man in good health mixed with honey are sovereign against sore throats and those of a red-haired man distilled in water heal wounds and ulcers ...!

Dog or wolf, cow, pork and goat droppings, as appropriate, prepared in mixtures (sometimes macerated in white wine or beer) are useful in cases of dropsy, insect bites , coughing up blood, jaundice, or smallpox etc.

Remedies with animals and insects

Universal and millennial opotherapy, is a therapy with products of dead or alive animal origin (leeches, snail slime, snake venom, earthworms cooked in goose fat, frogs, lamb and chickens cut in two and applied hot to the lesions etc ...

Insects are no exception: lice, kept on their heads because they are supposed to suck bad blood, (roasted or mixed with egg yolk) make bronchitis patients spit (as we can imagine!). Woodlice, cobwebs, scorpions cooked, charred, chopped and incorporated into other ingredients cure third fever, prevent hemorrhages or ear infections ...

Bloodletting, cupping, leeching and enemas

Any doctor knows the practice of bloodletting to purify bad moods. Some patients are bled up to forty times a year !. Bloodletting houses are developing due to the craze for this method practiced by barber-surgeons who also place leeches and suction cups. The bleeding sometimes has the effect of weakening or even "killing the patient". Enemas are widely recommended by doctors.

The remedies cited here are islands in the ocean of recipes that have come down to us, but they allow us to better understand, situate (or complain about) our ancestors and their medicine. Many of the organic, mineral, animal or plant elements that went into the compositions had to cause sometimes painful reactions, in any case requiring a stomach and a sense of smell!

As we can see by reading the various Antidotaries, Receivers and other collections of remedies, the reality of this medicine is enough to make people shudder! We can ask ourselves the question: how did the patients of the time survive some of this treatment? And the opinion of Celsus: "better to try an uncertain remedy than to try none" was certainly not of a great comfort .... The epidemics of black plague which will rage in XIVe century and in XVe century will not contradict this saying.

Sources and illustrations

- Remedies in the Middle Ages, by Michèle Bilimoff. Editions Ouest-France, June 2011.

Video: Horrible Histories - Historical Paramedics: Medieval Paramedics. Measly Middle Ages (January 2022).