Medieval Medicine

Home learning focus

Learn about medicine in the Middle Ages.

This lesson includes:

  • One video about the techniques and issues of medicine in the Middle Ages.

  • Two activities to build knowledge and understanding.

Learn

Advances in medical procedures and medicines mean that today, you are likely to be healthier and live longer than at any other time in human history.

In this short animation, learn more about medicine in medieval times, and how they treated illness and disease.

Medieval medicine

A summary of medicine through time

The Middle Ages roughly spanned from the 5th-15th Century. From the late 15th Century onwards, Europe entered the Early Modern Period, which lasted until around the 18th Century.

Until the 1970s, writers on the history of medicine such as Charles Singer took a 'positivist' approach, which saw the history of medicine as a vast sweep of steady progress from medieval times to the present.

For these writers, the Middle Ages were a time of dirt and superstition, the Early Modern age saw the development of the first scientific ideas, and the 19th century was an 'age of heroes' – such as Pasteur, Lister, and Chadwick – who propelled medicine into our modern age where anything is possible.

After the 1970s, these views were challenged.

Historians proved that treatment in the Middle Ages was often successful, and suggested that medieval towns were not as dirty as Early Modern towns.

They showed that advances in public health occurred before Pasteur discovered germs and that doctors were doing adventurous surgery long before antiseptics and anaesthetics.

Illustration by Leonhart Thurn-heisser (1574), representing the four humours.
Medicine through time

Despite historians now thinking the middle ages were less dirty and superstitious than before, it was still a grim time to be sick

People died from simple injuries, such as cuts; diseases such as leprosy, a disease affecting parts of the body and the nervous system; smallpox, a viral illness with fever and sores; and various fevers.

Treatments included a mixture of herbal remedies, bleeding and purging, and supernatural ideas.

Treatment

Medieval doctors didn't have a clue what caused disease. Most doctors still believed the Greek theory from Galen, a doctor during the Roman Empire, that you became ill when the 'Four Humours' - phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood - became unbalanced.

During the medieval era, dissection of human bodies was banned, so doctors didn't correctly understand what went on inside the body. They blamed everything from the stars to demons, sin and bad smells. They trusted supernatural ideas that included God, charms and luck, witchcraft, or astrology.

When a disease hit parts of Britain, like the Black Death in 1348, doctors were powerless to stop the disease. Half the population of England died.

At the time, there were both supernatural and natural explanations for the Black Death. For example, some people said that God had sent it as a punishment, others that the planets were in the wrong conjunction, or that it was caused by 'foul air'.

Recently, historians have suggested that many medieval treatments were successful, especially herbal remedies, as well as tidying rubbish from the streets and banning new visitors to towns and villages. Nevertheless, successful cures were mixed up with treatments that would seem crazy to us today. For example:

  • bleeding, applying leeches, smelling strong posies or causing purging or vomiting
  • cutting open buboes (plague sores), draining the pus, and making the patient hot or cold, for example by taking hot baths
  • trepanning - cutting a hole in the skull
  • praying, or encouraging people to whip themselves to try and earn God's forgiveness
  • lighting fires in rooms and spreading the smoke around
Coloured 13th century artwork showing a man trephining a man's skull

Practise

There are lots of ways to practise your historical knowledge of medieval medicine, online and offline.

Here are a few you could try.

Activity 1

Using information from the guide, make a poster to represent The Four Humours.

Activity 2

In this short quiz, test your knowledge of Medieval medicine.

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources from around the BBC and the web.

Bitesize Daily lessons
KS3 History
KS3 Medicine through time
Britannica  - Medieval Medicine
TES - Medieval Medicine
BBC Two - Medicine through time