Bloodletting

Bloodletting is one of the more horrific aspects of doctoring in history to the modern mind, the exact opposite of the prescription, ‘first do no harm’. In Starz production of Pillars of the Earth, set in the 1100s AD in England, an early scene shows a doctor bloodletting a patient.  This surprised me because I thought it too early for that particular method of harming a patient. I was wrong. Bloodletting has been practiced for thousands of years and was common among the ancients.  “‘Bleeding’ a patient to health was Read More…

Leprosy

Leprosy was one of the scourges of the Middle Ages–not so much because of scale, but because when a person caught it, their community cast them out.  The lazar house in the Brother Cadfael books, St. Giles, plays a significant role in the series.  In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is portrayed as a leper, which is historically accurate.  He ruled from 1174 to 1185.  The man who recognized he had the disease (instead of the Baron played by Liam Neeson) was William of Tyre, later Read More…

Life in the Middle Ages not so Bad :)

We have a view of life in the Middle Ages as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”, thanks to the quote from Thomas Hobbes.  However, he wasn’t talking about life in the Middle Ages, though somehow that’s what his quote has become to mean. Instead, he is talking about a fictive moment in human history before the development of formal society, which he viewed as the natural state of humanity. He saw it as a “warre of every man against every man”. The cultures of Great Britain have maintained a Read More…

The Black Death in Wales

The Black Death is generally understood to have been caused by the flea on a rat that appeared in Europe from Asia, having come from the steppes.  The Black Death came in three forms:  bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic, all caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis.    These three forms had a mortality rate of 30-75%, 90-95%, and 100% respectively. http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/Black.html Skip Knox writes:  ‘The Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s. No one really knows why. The plague bacillus was alive and active long before that; Read More…

Medicinal Herbs in Wales

Most plants and herbs used as medicines can cause harm when taken in excess or used inappropriately (see Medieval Poisons), but a whole host of plants were employed for medicinal purposes during the Dark and Middle Ages in Wales. “Medical activity in Wales has a long history:  although no primary sources now exist it seems likely that at the time of Hippocrates, around 430 BC, the laws of Dynwal Moelmud acknowledged and protected the art of medicine in Wales.  It is possible to ascertain with greater certainty the contribution to Read More…

The Nature of Knowledge

To humans, learning is like breathing–it comes naturally.  What a human learns, however, is not natural and depends on the needs of the individual, the time she lives in, and what is available for her to learn. A thousand years ago, ‘book’ knowledge was the province of the Church and of the elite (usually male).   Over the next two hundred years, formal education became more widespread.  Cambridge University, for example, was founded in 1209 by a group of men dissatisfied with Oxford. When a man went to the university, his education began Read More…

Time Travel part II

In terms of modern inventions that could be implemented in the Middle Ages, with the available technology, there are two which seemed most likely to make a difference to medieval people.  The first was simple sterilization:  washing hands, submersing implements and wounds in alcohol, and boiling.  Just taking these precautions could decrease rates of infections as well as keeping mothers who would have otherwise died of childbed fever alive. The second is gunpowder, or rather, ‘black powder’, which is its earlier incarnation.  It is made of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium Read More…

Wisdom Teeth

Although within fiction and movies, there is a sense that hygiene was poor and few people lived into adulthood with all their teeth intact, people did care for their teeth in the Middle Ages.  Herbs and mouthwashes existed that allowed people to do so: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/teeth.html At the same time, it is certainly true that tooth extraction was extremely common, and probably one of the few means of dealing with a rotten tooth. http://www.ada.org/public/resources/history/timeline_midlage.asppeople If people didn’t care for their teeth, they lost them, as the following image clearly indicates (copyright to Read More…