“Trust Me, I’m a (Medieval) Doctor”

By Jenny Weston

Despite my love for all manuscripts, I admit that I harbor particular enthusiasm for the curiously tantalizing ‘medieval medical manuscript’. Whether they contain graphic (and often strangely disconcerting) diagrams of the human body, morbid images of people covered in plague spots, or bizarre recipes for the home-brewed remedy, medical manuscripts provide fun and interesting insight into the world of the medieval physician.

Diagram of the Eye, Sloane 981, f. 68 (© The British Library)

Living in the relative safety of modernity, we sometimes take for granted the advanced health care that is readily available to us—for the most part we no longer fear the outcome of a bad cough or a broken ankle. Life for the ‘medievals’, however, was not so simple; even a mild illness or injury could be deadly. (Click on the images for a closer view).

Some Medieval Health Issues (© The British Library and © Liber Floridus)

So how did people combat health problems in the Middle Ages? What options were available? First, one might try to solve his or her problem with a herbal remedy of some kind. To find the correct plants, one could track down a ‘herbology’—a book that typically includes descriptions of local plants and their properties.

Mugwort, Tansy, and ‘Feverfew’ Plants, Egerton 747, ff. 7v-8 (© The British Library)

If that didn’t work, one might look for a copy of Galen’s De remediis or Constantine the African’s Liber pantegni—a medical compilation (largely based on Hellenistic and Islamic sources) that contains passages on ailments and their cures. Interestingly, when reading some of the remedies listed in the Liber pantegni, honey appears to have been a medicinal ingredient particulary favoured by physicians. In Chapter 28, De melle et Succarum, the book advises that “honey…produces good blood from old phlegm, and encourages a natural fever.” [Mel…phlegmaticis senibus bonum sanguine(m) generat, calore(m) naturalem confortat].

Besides herbs and honey, some medieval people also used the power of the stars and planets to help cure their health problems. Many believed that the human body was a microcosm of the universe (‘a mini human universe’), and just as the sky was governed by zodiac signs, so too was each part of the body. We can see how the body was divided according to the stars in diagrams like this one:

The Zodiac Man, Arundel 251, f. 46 (© The British Library)

To determine the safest time to treat certain parts of the body, many physicians in the later Middle Ages carried with them ‘pocket almanacs’. According to this ‘Zodiac Health Plan’ the physician was to avoid operating if the moon was in line with the affected body part.

Physician’s Pocket Almanac, Harley 3812 (© The British Library)

And finally, if one was beginning to get really desperate (the herbs, honey, and stars have not helped thus far), he or she might turn their attention to the magical power of stones by reading Marbod of Rennes’ Liber lapidum (Book of Stones). The text is a short poem discussing the different (magical) properties of rocks and gems. My favourite passage is the one devoted to the stone Jet: “When carried, it is useful for those with swollen water under their skin, and [when] dissolved in water, it strengthens loose teeth.” [Prodest gestatus tumidis intercute lympha, Et dilutus aqua dentes firmat labefactos]. The poem goes on to mention that Jet also drives away “cruel snakes” and is an opponent to demons.

And there we have some of the healthcare options available to the sick or injured medieval person. Despite the fact that I love flipping through these manuscripts (and reading about scary medieval diseases), I must say I am very grateful to be living in the modern era—where one does not have to solely rely on the power of honey, herbs, stars or stones in the midst of a health crisis.

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