Sunday, October 9, 2011

Elizebethan Medicine

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Medicine during the medieval era was multifaceted, relying on the skills of

several classes of practitioners. The ill and aged were treated by university

trained physicians, monks or folk healers, depending on the patients economic

status. Though medical practices and procedures in the middle ages are

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generally considered obsolete and relying on herbal remedies, prayer, spells,

and incantations, there were also surgeries performed and cure perfected that

are similar to modern day procedures.

The first medical university was founded in the 10th century in Salamo,

Italy. Medieval physicians followed the Greek belief that the body was made

up of four humors-sanguine (blood), choler, phlegm and melancholia. They

believed that the primary cause of illness was and imbalance of the humors.

All the humors had specific characteristics. Sanguine was hot moist, choler

was hot and dry, phlegm was cold and moist, and melancholy was cold and


The doctors worked to decide with humor was at fault and then

balance it out. Sometimes doctors would purge and humor with herbal

remedies, and or administer laxatives. Bloodletting was also a more

rememberable “cure” to an illness. The dangers of blood letting are obvious,

infection weakness, cutting up of an artery instead of a vein and causing

unstoppable bleeding, accidental cutting of nerves and loss of consciousness

by the patient. More often the not the result of bloodletting was either

continual sickness or death of the patient. As improbable as it sounds,

bloodletting fit perfectly into the humor theory. Bad blood with drawn from

the humor with the problem would leave only the good blood to take over and

become fine again. Phlebotomy (bloodletting) was considered by medieval

medicine be a form of surgery. Bloodletting allows for the control of the

humors in a certain part of the body. Phlebotomy was administered in two

ways, derivation or revulsion. Derivation meant letting blood of a certain

point to close off and infected area. Revulsion meant that blood was let at the

most remote point to the affected area. Both methods had specific use for

different illnesses and were widely practiced by many medieval physicians.

Faulty observation and misdiagnoses built the foundation for the theory

of humors as the major medical explanation for health disorders of the

medieval people. As an example, after Lent there would be many illnesses.

After a long harsh winter with malnutrition, people would then again give up

something, most likely a food that was expensive. This caused many

problems in households with an imbalance in the humors. Also the major

food group, which was meat, was for the most part salted. Many people

developed the first symptoms of scurvy out of the lack of vitamin C in their

diet. As soon as lent began meat was prohibited according to the Catholic

tradition, and the diet was soon implemented with other ingredients especially

fresh herbs and vegetables during the spring time. The improved diet

obviously improved the health of a medieval person.

There are very few documented surgeries, this is because there weren’t

many options for surgery other then bloodletting. This is probably due to the

fact that successful anesthetic procedures were not known until the 1th

century. But that is not to say they it was not attempted, it just was not

successful. Potions were made for a surgery to relieve pain or induce sleep

during the procedure. Some of these potions were more lethal then the

surgery itself. For example, one was made up of lettuce, gall from a castrated

boar, briony, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice-the hemlock juice in itself

could have easily caused death. A potion used as an anesthetic was called a

dwal. Dwal meant deception, delusion, evil, or dazed.

Dissections were only completed by a few surgeons. These people had

to have strong stomachs and be very brave to explore a deceased human

body. These “experiments” were looked down upon by the Popes and higher

priests in the Catholic church. But and odd fact to point out is that the

Church not only allowed but actually ordered cesarean sections done on dead

pregnant women in attempt to save the unborn child’s soul. The fascination

with the human body, however, was no put to its end but yet continued in

during the Renaissance time period.

The medicines in the Middle Ages more often than not would take the

form of herbal remedies. In accordance with the humor theory, most plants,

food substances, and commonly found house items were specified as either

cold, hot, dry, or wet so that they could be used to balance out the humors.

For example, pasta (hot) would be used for hot stomach, and cold and dry

linen was applied to dry up infections. Many of these herbal remedies came

from the church were the brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church were

trained in this medical area.

The Black Death and Leprosy were widely infectious and well-known

diseases during the Middle Ages. In early 147 a fearful epidemic of bubonic

plague broke out in Constantinople. From then on the great plague took over

Europe and killed approximately 1/4 to /10 of the population in its affected

area. There is much to tell of this disease, so in sort it was a highly infectious

disease that would be transmitted by inhalation abrasion of skin or ingestion.

Lung lesions, were a common in a person with the plague as well as death

from heart failure. “The walls of blood vessels are attacked frequently

causing hemorrhages and acute blood poisoning.”, states one web site. And

this Black Death was fatal in almost all cases.

Another disease that swept across Europe was Leprosy. It is an

infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprea, a first cousin to

tuberculosis bacteria. We cannot be sure that Leprosy was actually the

disease that was “found” in the middle ages but it was often a diagnosis to

many patients with disfigurements. It was almost as if a doctor that had a

patient that he could not properly diagnose had leprosy. It was almost a if

leprosy became a scapegoat. Although this disease was not as fatal as the

plague it caused the leper to be isolated. Lepers were usually be banded to

leper hospitals or leper communities. In many cases leprosy meant separation

from ones family.

Aside from herbal remedies, the Catholic church was a cure for almost

anything. Eventually the Catholic church would take over the medical

aspects of the society providing sources for healing rituals. “Christians

should not pamper the body at the expense of the sour or be consumed with

the material temporal to the detriment of the spiritual and eternal”

(Amundsen 6). De Medicamentis Liber by Marcelli (156) taught how to

cure ills using plants, gems, and other natural substances. Although this was

frowned upon by the Church, it was considered bearable as the importance of

medications grew. The use of drugs was permitted as long as no

non-Christian incantations were used. The tension between the church the

folk medicine arose had its basis in the dependence of the latter upon

sources that were non-compatible with Christian faith.

There were a books that most physicians used. They were called leech

books. Bald’s Leechbook, one of the few remaining, proposes a curious

structure for the analysis of a human body. Book 1 of this leech book writes

about prescriptions for various ailments. The second book contains things

such as recognition of signs of diseases and the occasionally attempts of


Hospitals, or rather centers for the sick, became steadily more popular.

Of course the majority still received treatment at home. For the few that had

the cash to spend could use the services of the monasteries for the few

hospitals in the more urban areas. The term hospital was vital and flexible. It

encompassed hotels for travelers and indigent students, dispensaries for the

poor, clinics and surgeries for the injured, homes for the blind, and lame, the

elderly the orphaned, and the mentally ill. Almost one half of the built

hospitals was directly affiliated with monasteries and churches.

To summarize this era and the medical technology would be easy.

There was none. The church took over quickly and before that it was men

who “tinkered” with human bodies and made guesses on the treatment for the

patient. The fact that these people know almost nothing about the human

body played a large role in why the death rate was so high. NO one know

what a human needed to survive. Diseased people were considered

disfigured and were banished and said to be non-existent. You would think

that bleeding someone to death hundreds of times would give you a hint that

that procedure was no good, but these people had no idea. When we look

back and see how far we have come it makes you think how much you really

appreciate our modern day medical technology.

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