What did people believe in the Middle Ages, Part 2: Medical knowledge in the Middle Ages and Natural Science

Imagine you are suffering from a bad fever, aches, cough and general flu like symptoms. You might even have the fearsome swine flu. Nowadays you might take pain-killers to relieve the symptoms, or seek medical advice in case you had something more serious.

In the Middle Ages, if you could afford to see a doctor, it’s likely that a course of bleeding or phlebotomy would be prescribed.

Phlebotomy or Bloodletting

Phlebotomy was the practice popularized by the Ancient Greek medical authority Galen, which advocated the letting of blood from a patient (and anyone in order to maintain health). Symptoms such as fevers, headaches or apoplexy were thought to be induced by an imbalance of humours, which could be reduced by the letting of blood, as blood was thought to accumulate in the body. The idea of a circulation of blood having not been discovered at that time.

Medieval doctors based their practice on Galen and continued the practice of bloodletting. It was used to not only cure, but also to maintain health. For instance monks would routinely spend time in their infirmary to have bloodletting.

As can be seen from the above image, it was believed that bleeding in different parts of the body relieved different ailments. Much in the manner that treatments such as acupuncture and reflexology are supposed to work today. There are probably similarities in that it is likely that any positive effects would by psychosomatic rather than physical only.

Cauterization or branding

Related to bloodletting and perhaps more extreme was the remedy of cauterization or branding. Again the practice prescribed branding in different parts of the body to relieve different ailments.


The third strand of medieval medicine consisted of the use of various potions and poultices often based on herbal remedies. Some of these no doubt were effective if they used the right ingredients, for instance raspberry leaf to cure pain. But others such as fried mouse to cure whooping cough were sheer fancy but held to be just as effective.

Astrology and Natural Magic

Binding all these medical practices together was a deeply held belief in the influence of the stars and planets on events on earth. For instance there was a theory that different signs of the zodiac influenced different parts of the body. Again Galen, the principal medical authority, was to blame with his platonic belief that the stars influenced man and the diseases that affected him.

A step on from the herbal remedies of medieval medicine were what was in effect natural magic, i.e. the manipulation of elements in nature by man. This was now outside the sphere perhaps of the doctor and perhaps more in the area of the wise woman, who would in the early modern era be labelled a witch, who might administer a cure along with a conjuration bidding the disease to depart the patient’s body.

Conclusion of Part 2: Medical or Spiritual Cures?

So where did this leave the medieval man or woman requiring treatment for illness. If they were lucky an appropriate medicine might be prescribed, or perhaps the very act of seeking treatment would have a psychosomatic affect and help them get better. But it was very likely that if there ailment was serious medicine might be of very little help with them. And of course as it was often mixed with magic elements such as astrology the doctor could always blame the configuration of the stars for his patient’s continued suffering.

So a lack of scientific advancement held back medicine. Medieval people simply didn’t have the tools and knowledge to understand how health worked. They certainly liked to keep clean, but they might not understand the links between protecting water supplies from pollution and health. They thought in fact that the smell was the problem. So they would try to separate tanning for instance from residential areas, but they may not realise that they needed to protect the water supply too to prevent sewage entering drinking water. Although the staple drink was beer rather than water so they must have known that drinking water could be bad for you.

My thesis as stated in the first post of this series is that a lack of advancement in medicine lead to more deeply ingrained popular belief in religion in ancient and medieval times. The lack of effective medicine at this time meant that an earthly cure was unlikely to be thought superior to a spiritual one as the chances of being cured were fairly low, and also linked already to preternatural elements – i.e. the movements of the stars.

Part 3 will examine the nature of popular belief in the middle ages, especially the major functions of religion for most people at the time.

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