Doctors and healers of all sorts throughout human history have offered remedies and treatments for all sorts of ailments and maladies. While some medieval medical treatments may seem horrific to modern sensibilities, at the time they seemed to be based upon sound reasoning, actual experience, or at least a good theory. Ranging from some methodologies that may still be practiced today, in modified forms, to the bizarre and thankfully discontinued radical ideas that have been disproven, medieval medical treatments were usually dramatic and sometimes successful in treating disease.
Balancing the Humours With Bloodletting and More
Some medieval medical treatments were based partly on observation, such as theories about the bodily fluids systems. Ancient physicians observed that humans had bile, saliva, blood, sweat, and other fluids present in the body at all times. They reasoned that illness was an imbalance of the levels of the fluids, which they called “humours”. They reasoned that the imbalances could be adjusted by letting off some blood, inducing vomiting, or sweating, among other means of altering the fluid levels in the body. They may have been on to some reasonable ideas, but the methods they used and the results they got were not always positive.
Using means ranging from leeches to cutting, the bloodletting sometimes seemed to help, as patients got better on their own or just survived the procedure. Some of the methods may have had some success, while others failed or went without note, but some of the techniques have survived in modern methods related to controlling and balancing the body’s fluids and chemicals, which are naturally much more well understood in modern science than in medieval times.
Beginning around the 12th century, Arabs began using mummified remains of ancient Egyptians in medicines and household products. Essentially considering the mummified bodies unrelated to themselves, and distant enough to not warrant concern for abusing the human remains, well-preserved noble mummies were very expensive in the society, while lower class peasant mummies found in the sand went for much lower amounts.
Faith Based Healing
Faced with no practical solutions to many medical conditions, many medieval medical treatments involved elements of religious belief or superstition. Individuals with general maladies or disease were advised to travel to shrines or places thought to have healing waters, for example. Priests and others attempted cures by exorcising devils or using purification rituals that could be very physically difficult on the ill person. Since some people improved after such methods, faith often increased, while those who did not get better were thought to be unworthy or unprepared for God’s intervention in their case.
Shave, Haircut, Tooth Extraction and a Surgery
Surgery was generally not common among medieval medical treatments. The risks of cutting into people, and the general uncertainty about many aspects of biological anatomy precluded routine surgery as is more common today. When some surgical procedure was needed, however, ranging from a dental technique like tooth removal to more serious procedures, the person most likely to hold the knife would be the barber. Familiar with sharp instruments and equipped with some rudimentary facilities for certain simple procedures, the local barber, or often a travelling barber-surgeon, would perform many basic techniques that involved some degree of cutting or operating, such as amputations of damaged limbs. Fortunately, modern surgeons are trained in advanced medical technologies to perform precise and careful surgery (they can even replace bones and joints!), and barbers have improved their hairstyling techniques, but now leave the surgery to the pros.