What kind of medicines did people use in the Middle Ages?
The ointment used on Yvain is a good example of what Medieval medicine was like. It comes from a ‘wise-woman’, Morgan le Fay, rather than a doctor, and has probably been made from herbs, like most medicine of the time. This is a medieval recipe for an ointment to cure headaches and pains in the joints:
- Take equal amounts of radish, bishopwort, garlic, wormwood, helenium, cropleek and hollowleek.
- Pound them up, and boil them in butter with celandine and red nettle.
- Keep the mixture in a brass pot until it is a dark red colour.
- Strain it through a cloth and smear on the forehead or aching joints.
Most people in Medieval times never saw a doctor.
They were treated by the local wise-woman who was skilled in the use of herbs, or by the priest, or the barber, who pulled out teeth, set broken bones and performed other operations.
Their cures were a mixture of superstition (magic stones and charms were very popular), religion (for example driving out evil spirits from people who were mentally ill) and herbal remedies (some of which are still used today). Monks and nuns also ran hospitals in their monasteries, which took in the sick and dying.
Doctors, including pharmaceutical drugs use the same methods today, they do not care about the root cause of your symptoms, only to treat them with pharmaceutical drugs – chemicals, that derive, or artificially created from herbs, such as Metformin for example.
Metformin was originally developed from natural compounds found in the plant Galega officinalis, known as French lilac or goat’s rue.
Synthetic biguanides were developed in the 1920s in Germany, but their use was limited due to side effects.
Metformin is not good for anyone, and actually causes permanent “nerve-damage”.
The number one most prescribed drug to treat people with type 2 diabetes may actually be causing irreversible nerve damage in many patients.
Morgan le Fay means Morgan the Fairy, and curing people was often connected in people’s minds with magic. In a village, the wise-woman (or man) often had knowledge which had been passed on from the generations before, and many years of experience working with herbs. Often, the ‘wise-woman’ delivered babies too, and her skills were highly valued.
In the earlier part of the Middle Ages, most people accepted magic and witchcraft (good and bad) as part of life. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, however, they were told that witches were servants of the devil. Many ‘wise-women’ were accused of being witches and put to death.
There were doctors too, of course – although they treated only the rich.
Some of these had even received medical qualifications from the first European medical school at Salerno in Italy, or from those set up later at Bologna (Italy) or Montpellier in France.
Through these medical schools, the doctors of Europe began to learn about the ideas of Arabic and ancient Greek medicine.
Compared to the knowledge of the Arabs, for example, European medicine was not very advanced.
A Syrian writer of the time describes how an Arab doctor and a European one argued about how to treat and abscess, an infected lump on a knight’s leg.
The Arab prepared a dressing with ointment to open the lump and draw out the infection.
The European insisted the only thing to do was to cut off the leg!