Today, many seem to take it for granted that when we are ill, we can just visit a qualified doctor or take safe medicinal remedy to ease or symptoms or cure us of our diseases. Most of what constitutes modern medical practice is based in science, and has been repeatedly tested to ensure safety. Things were always this simple or safe, however. In the Middle Ages, medical treatment could be incredibly unsafe and, in some instances, downright bizarre. Here, we’ll look at some the weirder medical treatments from medieval times.
Although it is definitely strange, and it sounds disgusting, this practice is not as bad for you as it sounds. Water was not reliably clean during the Middle Ages, and using it to clean a wound could have killed you due to contamination. Urine, on the other hand, is at least typically sterile when in leaves the body, although urine from someone with a UTI could have been problematic. This may not have been a common remedy, but there is some evidence for its use. Henry VIII’s own surgeon recommended it as a wound cleaner. During the Great Plague of 1666 (though not medieval times), doctors recommended you wash in urine to protect yourself from plague.
Quicksilver was used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions in the Middle Ages. It was especially popular in the treatment of illnesses that affected the skin, such as leprosy. It was also used to treat venereal disease. It could be applied to the affected area, such as on skin lesions, and was sometimes taken internally. The problem with this is that quicksilver is another name for mercury, a highly toxic metal. Even those who only applied quicksilver externally would have been poisoned by it, as mercury can be absorbed through the skin. In this case, the cure was definitely worse than the disease.
Dwale (pronounced dwaluh) was a term for any anesthetic potion in the English of the Middle Ages. Crude forms of surgery were performed in this era, but there were no safe and reliable anesthetics. So, surgeons resorted to different concoctions to relieve pain or cause their patients to sleep during procedures. Some of their recipes called for substances such as boar gall, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice. Boar gall may be a disgusting ingredient, but henbane and hemlock juice were poisonous. And large doses of opium could also be deadly. Since surgeons mixed their own anesthetics, and there were no laws governing potency, many patients went to sleep for surgery and never woke up. This may be why surgery in the Middle Ages was reserved for only the most hopeless cases.
This procedure involves drilling a hole into a person’s skull to expose the outer membrane of the patient’s brain. The surgery was thought to treat many problems that were associated with the head or brain, such as mental illness, headaches, and epilepsy. People undergoing trepanning probably would not have been given much of anything for pain, so the process was painful. This procedure also exposed the brain to germs, which could cause fatal brain infections. It didn’t cure any of the conditions it was meant to treat, either.
As imperfect as modern medicine is, we should all be happy to be living in the 21st century, where at least some of our medical treatments work and aren’t all but guaranteed to cause death.