Medieval Medicine

In modern times we tend to sneer at medieval medicine as barbaric. They used herbs! They used leeches! They used maggots! What's funny, though, is that over time we've come to realize that much of what they did made perfect sense.

Let's take the use of maggots. Maggots eat dead flesh, but don't touch living flesh. So someone with a diabetic foot issue, for example, can use maggots to safely remove the dead tissue and leave behind the good tissue. This is debridement and is helping to save patients who might otherwise have faced amputations.

Leeches can be quite helpful. They gently drain blood and remove clots. This can be quite useful after surgery, where body parts are trying to heal properly.

When it comes to herbs, so many herbs are incredibly useful even in modern day life. We drink chamomile tea to relax. We use lavender to help us fall asleep. Cinnamon is used to help lose weight. Aloe vera is used to ease burns.

The Church
On one hand, monasteries would preserve knowledge and pass it down to future generations. Surgeons with the Crusades brought back a wealth of advanced Muslim medical practices to England.

On the other hand, many factions in Christianity fought against medical treatment, because they felt it went against God's Will. If you had boils, it's because you did something bad and you had to repent and pray. When you did, God would release you from your torment. To try to "sneak around" God's Will with herbs or incantations was to turn one's back on God.

In particular, pregnant women were suffering from Eve's Curse and were often told to go through childbirth without any herbs at all, because that suffering was their "lot in life". Part of the church's worries was that many herbalists were female pagans. The church labeled the midwives as "witches" and did not want them near innocent souls. The church was also against females having any positon of power. These various issues then riled the female herbalists, who actively rebelled against the church and violated their rules every chance they could. This meant that Christian women who acted as midwives were going expressly against the teachings of the church and would have to reconcile that with their Christian desires.

The church, for a long time, also forbid any examination of dead bodies. They felt it was disrespectful. So it was not possible for surgeons or doctors to examine how humans were "put together" unless they happened to work on an injured person who was injured in that specific area.

A key theory of medicine in medieval times - begun by the Greeks and used even up until the 1800s - was the "humour" theory. The body had a variety of forces in it and if those forces were out of balance your body became sick. So there was black bile / depression, phlegm / too calm, blood / passion, and yellow bile / grumpy. If your humour went too far in a direction you became too overcome with those emotions and matching symptoms. You wanted to have some passion in you of course, but not be irrationally passionate where you lost all sense. You wanted to have some calm, but not be so without emotion that you cared about nothing at all.

This then came up with interesting solutions to illnesses. If a doctor thought you had too much "blood humour" in you, he might blood-let you (with leeches or cuts) to let that excess blood out. Food was even categorized by its humour, so if you had too much phlegm (too calm) you might be served wine, which was its "opposite" by being a yellow-bile substance. Which, you know, probably worked ;).

So yes, medieval folk were a bit confused when it came to the humours :). But there were still talented herbalists and well-trained surgeons who knew about actual causes of illness and sought to properly heal. One of their challenges was how to handle pain. Yes, they knew about opium and dwale and other substances - but administering the exact right dose could be tricky. They might not numb the pain enough, or they might accidentally kill the patient.

Healing Wounds
With all the fighting going on, surgeons knew quite a lot about how to try to keep a person alive. They knew how to amputate limbs. They knew techniques for getting arrows out of wounds. They could cauterize wounds to prevent further bleeding.

Recent archaeological finds show that even in the 500-700AD range surgeons were doing successful brain surgery - Medieval Soldiers and Brain Surgery.

One area which was challenging was the stomach / abdomen area. If the stomach was ruptured, those powerful acids could cause immense harm to anything else they touched. If the intestines were ruptured, the fecal matter getting into wounds and the blood stream would cause a variety of serious issues including sepsis. There's a kidney on either side, and rupturing a kidney leads to quick death. However, luckily for one of my stories, there is a known "empty area" on either side of the body beneath the kidney. The intestines tend to squiggle down the center of the torso at this point, and there's nothing important to hit on either side. So as long as an arrow or sword goes into that neutral area, the person can survive. The below image is an open-rights one from Wikipedia. It doesn't quite show those open areas well, but I've found several confirmations of them.

Abdomen anatomy image

This location seems to be exactly where Lancelot is stabbed when he has the "I fight with myself" scene, in Excalibur, one of my favorite movies.

excabliur lancelot fight with himself

So, in any case, medieval doctors and surgeons and herbalists had a lot of experience with wounds, especially during war time. They might not have had our medical technology, but they weren't helpless either.

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