Health and hygiene in a castle

What was health like in medieval times?

Skeletons found in the ground from medieval times can tell us a little bit about health in and around castle.

In the 1200s and 1300s, most people would not expect to live to an old age and many died young. However, kings and queens usually lived a bit longer.

Why?

Medieval doctors didn't have the same medicine as modern doctors have today.

Plants, like aloe and garlic, were used to treat common illnesses.

A medieval handbook of health

This Medieval handbook of health from the 1300s shows people picking garlic to treat illnesses.

What was hygiene like in a castle?

Toilet at the ruins of St Andrews castle

Toilets

Toilets in a castle were just a hole in a wooden or stone bench like this one at St Andrews castle in Fife. The waste would fall down a chute and into the moat or a cess pit.

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What about their teeth?

Archaeologists can look at skulls to find out what people's teeth were like during the time of castles.

It might be a surprise for you to learn that many people living in and around Medieval castles would have had clean teeth!

This is because they didn't eat much sugar – it was too expensive. The richer a person was the more sugar they could afford and the more their teeth decayed. Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603) was famous for her rotten teeth and she even brushed her teeth with honey.

And they didn't have sweeties and fizzy drinks like we do now. They ate lots of grains and vegetables which are very good for your teeth.

What was the Plague?

The plague (also known as the Black Death) was a disease that spread across Europe during the Middle ages.

  • spread through fleas on rats
  • first arrived in Scotland in 1349
  • caused painful swellings, made it difficult to breathe and infected blood
  • killed about half of all the people in Europe

Doctors tried many unusual things to cure the plague:

  • rubbing onions, herbs and even chopped up snakes on the boils
  • drinking vinegar
  • sitting close to a fire or in a sewer to drive out the fever