Medieval miracle medicine

Medicine is as old as time, just not really what we expect it to be. While the Greeks (like Hippocrates) constantly worked on improving their skill, it kind of took a step back during the Middle Ages. That does not mean it was all bad though…

Photo credit: CarlMilner / Source / CC BY
Photo credit: CarlMilner / Source / CC BY

This year, an incredible discovery was made. The ‘superbug’ called MRSA has been hard to fight for many years as it is resistant to antibiotics. Patients who get ill from MRSA are kept under the care of hospitals, in isolation until the ‘superbug’ passes through the system. But now, there might finally be a cure! The Anglo-Saxons used this medicine to treat eye infections. Yes, you read that correctly: the Anglo-Saxons. So get your cauldron, we’re going medieval style!

Who would have thought that a mixture of wine, garlic and gastric acid would be a cure? It sounds more like poison! Instead, this is the cure that was (re-)discovered in a medical textbook from the 10th century and during the first rounds of tests, it killed up to 90% of all MRSA bacterias. The recipe was so helpfull, that nine more recipes will be recreated and tested on present diseases that are related to past bacterias.

'Healing the sick', fresco by Domenico di Bartolo
‘Healing the sick’, fresco by Domenico di Bartolo

The Dark Ages are not remembered for scientific accomplishments. Part of that is with a good reason, as history shows us that after the fall of the Roman Empire, more and more diseases started to ‘run free’. The Black Death alone cost more than 20 million people, one third of Europe’s population, their life between 1347 and 1351. As terrible as that was, it was also the reason why people started to realise why ‘medical school’ was important for doctors, and in the Renaissance science finally took over medicine again.
Finally! Because even though the 10th century now gives us a cure against the ‘superbug’, there was even more rubbish going around. Here are five examples the some crazy (and very non-helpful) ‘cures’ from ancient times:

  1. Urine as antiseptic.
    This sounds gross, and it was. It wasn’t a common practice, but there are sources that show that it was used by almost every ancient civilization to treat infections. The surgeon of king Henry VIII recommended it to treat battle wounds. It does seem that urine does have some helpful components, but it does need to be treated which did not happen in the Middle Ages. It is, however, very useful against the stings of jellyfish!
  2. Red-hot iron against hemorrhoids.
    Trouble with hemorrhoids? In medieval times they had a very… effective cure for it. A red-hot iron iron was pressed up the anus by monks. This very painful, and rather dangerous method was used until the 12th century. After that physicians discovered that a good bath was more effective. Sounds nicer to.
  3. Boring in the skull.
    Splitting headaches? Epilepsy? Or just plain crazy? Don’t worry, we’ll just drill a hole into your skull! Fixes everything! You could see trepanning as the very first form or neurosurgery, but most of the times it was fatal as exposing the brain directly to air, as was done, and its germs was usually a death sentence.
  4. 405px-13th_century_anatomical_illustration_-_sharp[1]Finding the vein.
    Another ‘miracle cure’ for everything: bloodletting. According to ancient doctors, your body consisted of four fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. These four fluids could cause illnesses because of an excess of deficiency, and most often an ‘excess of blood’ was seen as the wrongdoer. People believed this so badly, that they had large amounts of blood drained regularly to stay healthy. I would recommend eating a piece of fruit…
  5. Astrology as medical practice.
    When all hope is lost, turn to superstition. In the Dark Ages, astrology was considered ‘magic’. Often astrologists were more like biologists, meteorologists, astronomists, and quacks all in one. So if you had a medical condition, you would go to an astrologist for a diagnosis, which was often based on vague theories of stars and constellations. This superstition was so strong, that by 1500 it was obligatory for a physician to consult a patient’s horoscope before the start of any treatment! If my doctor shows up with charts of the movement of the sun, I will ask if he needs help instead of me.

Of course, not only the people from the Middle Ages had their weird cures. The Greeks also had a trick up their sleeve. And we still have strange ‘homeopathic’ treatments in the present day.

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