Medicine in the Middle Ages


A sketch of a physician removing a stone from a patient's bladder.
A physician removing a stone from a patient's bladder

There was some progress in the area of surgery. The Middle Ages was a time of constant warfare, so surgeons got lots of practice and:

  • realised that wine was a mild antiseptic
  • developed a range of painkillers, including opium

Medieval surgeons were very good at practical first aid and even attempted some internal surgery. They could:

  • heal wounds and broken bones
  • carry out external surgery on problems like ulcers and eye cataracts
  • carry out internal surgery such as bladder stones

Public health

It used to be thought that medieval towns were filthy, without drains, sewers or rubbish collections.

However, modern historians have found out that:

  • Parliament passed the first law requiring people to keep the streets and rivers clean in 1388.
  • Medieval people washed and exercised. Many towns had bath houses.
  • Towns paid 'gong farmers' to clear out human waste from cesspits.
  • Many towns had quarantine laws, boarded up the houses of plague victims, and isolated people with leprosy in 'lazar houses'.
  • Monasteries had running water and good toilet facilities.
  • Hospitals were built eg St Bartholomew's in London in 1123.

Nowadays, historians think that medieval towns were not as dirty as Early Modern towns – but the sights and smells of a medieval town would still probably have made you feel sick.