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You'll be glad you've got a healer after this

Plague descends on your castle. Your healer walks round wafting his herbal concoctions. The plague eventually goes, but you have lost many of your workers. How true to life was this in medieval times?

In 1347 the Bubonic Plague (also known as the Black Death) hit Europe. In 1348 it came across the English Channel. It struck quickly, starting with slight swellings in the armpit and groin, followed by coughing up blood, the swellings oozing, large purple/black blotches on the skin and the victim would smell revolting. Within three days he was dead. The bodies were piled up or thrown in rivers so, of course, it spread rapidly. Within two years, two thirds of England's population was dead and the plague returned another six times that century.

The doctors didn't know what caused it, so all sorts of rumours went round from being infected by just looking at a victim to drinking poisoned water .. not to mention simply breathing. The French blamed the English, the Spanish blamed the Arabs and everyone blamed lepers and tramps.

Because the cause wasn't known, there was no cure. But that didn't stop people trying to invent one. People tried throwing sweet smelling herbs on a fire to make the air breathable (that's where our healer obviously comes from); victims sat in a sewer because they thought the bad smell would scare away the plague; eating arsenic (don't try this one at home - it's extremely poisonous); blood letting; marching from town to town self-flagellating with a whip; swallowing crushed emeralds (this one for the rich of course) and, to me, the worst of the lot, shaving the bottom of a live chicken & strapping it to the plague sores. A few had a natural immunity and others (mainly the rich) ran away to the country.

It wasn't until the 19th century that the cause was discovered. Although people had been blaming it on rats it was, in fact, fleas that carried the plague and transmitted it to rats. When there weren't many rats left, they moved to humans.

Apart from the plague, there were plenty of other diseases ready to kill you off .. and plenty of other cures. Many of the diseases we consider trivial today, such as toothache or a cold could be killers. Diseases and infections were caused by eating rotten meat or the lack of proper nutrition. Town and cities were filthy and there was no knowledge of even basic hygiene and, as no-one knew how diseases spread and housing in towns being so close together, epidemics could spread like wildfire. The Church preached that illness was punishment from God for sinful behaviour.

There were doctors, but they didn't know much more than ordinary people. It was forbidden to experiment on dead bodies for religious reasons. The doctors charged for their services so only the rich could use them anyway. 'Surgeons' were usually barbers or butchers - the red & white pole that represents barbers today stood for the blood & the bandages. Instruments were not sterilised and post-operative infections leading to death were common. There were rudimentary hospitals, usually attached to monasteries. The monks had a basic medical knowledge and helped the poor who couldn't afford doctors.

The cures were often worse than the illnesses. Some of them are as follows:

General illness
Bleeding was supposed to release bad blood from your body - usually this was done by leeches, but occasionally dirty knives were used
Treacle was thought of as a general cure-all
A pilgrimage to a holy place, buying some holy water when there
Cauterisation which was putting red hot pokers on the part of your body that was ailing

Blocked nose
Mustard & onion mixed together stuffed up the nose

Gout
Goat's droppings, rosemary & honey mixed together

Madness
Cutting a hole in your head (trepanning) to release the evil spirits in the brain - sometimes part of the brain was cut out as well

Ringworm
Washing your hair in a boy's urine

Toothache
Hanging a magpie's beak round your neck
Burning a candle close to the tooth so the worms would fall out.

So, is your healer doing a good job? Well, he's probably not curing anybody … but he could be doing a lot worse.

Written and researched by GillB*

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