10 Weird Medieval Medical Practices That Actually Work

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The span of human history has seen many extremes in medicine that have gone horrifically wrong. This linear narrative of trial and error to help the diseased among us has had mixed results. Particularly in the Middle Ages, the Western world was trapped somewhere between ancient medicine, relying largely on ideas by Greek thinkers and the like, and religious beliefs and superstitions that dominated much of humanity at the time.

Back then, people were also exploring new scientific ideas. As a result, many supposed cures involved things like the elements or other seemingly important objects that didn’t in any way treat the poor person who had been injured or sickened. The stars and planets were a big influence on the medicine of the day until scientific experimentation ultimately prevailed.

Here are 10 medical treatments from medieval times that actually had at least a bit of success for suffering patients or that still work today.

10. Skull Knitting

Photo credit: Live Science

There has always been a major risk of death, whether immediate or in the longer term, with a traumatic injury to the head, as often happened in the medieval world. Research has shown that people who suffered a brain injury, likely during combat or personal disputes, were 6.2 percent more likely to die an early death than those who hadn’t.

Field surgeons had to do their best to keep people alive as long as possible. One way to do this when a severe injury had been sustained and bone had been fractured was to knit the bone back together. This helped to hold in position the organs that were protected or held in place by the bone so that the body could heal.

Yes, they even knitted skulls. Between jousting, fights, and combat, head injuries were quite common. Many peasants and knights alike sustained them, though only the upper classes had access to actual medicine, including skull knitting.[1]

9. Examination Of Urine

Photo credit: bl.uk

Ancient Greek thinkers like Hippocrates and Galen believed that most of the bodily sicknesses came from an imbalance in the four humors—black and yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. They wrote about this in their works, which survived into the Middle Ages and were common up to 1,000 years later.

Drawings and manuscripts from the Middle Ages directed doctors to inspect urine. Although the four humors were proven to be fairly nonsensical, the idea was spot-on. The instructions we still have today tell doctors to look for blood and other discoloration of the urine.

If modern doctors didn’t have better means, discolored urine is still a telltale sign they could use to determine if someone is suffering from kidney problems or certain other issues. The examination of urine was spot-on for making a diagnosis of illness even if the method of treating the problem wasn’t always correct.

If someone has kidney disease today, doctors will ask that person to submit a urine sample to see what they can find in it. Sure enough, the signs they look for are much the same as the ones from the Middle Ages, namely blood or a darkened color.[2]

8. Garlic And The Black Plague

Photo credit: Olybrius

As with all other cases of the bubonic plague, the Black Plague was a horrifying time for Europe. Doctors had zero idea how to combat this deadly bacterium which ripped through the European landscape, decimating populations. Anything that worked to save even one life was held up as a “cure” in this time of sheer terror. People were becoming infected every day with one of the worst of all afflictions.

But medieval nobility and peasants alike found at least some relief in an ancient remedy that’s as simple as applying a garlic clove to an open wound or other site that’s prone to spreading infection. The poor might have done especially well as they relied heavily on occult doctors and herbs and spices. Some of these items, such as garlic, were actually effective.

One fascinating piece of history lies in folktales of four thieves vinegar, which is basically a tale of four actual bandits who plundered the medieval landscape and protected themselves from the plague with a concoction of garlic and herbs mixed with oils and vinegar.[3]

At the very least, garlic was effective at halting the plague from completely ravaging the body and slowed its progress. At best, garlic may have even saved many more lives than we’ve imagined. Garlic is a powerful antibiotic that’s perfectly natural.

7. Street Cleaning

Photo credit: medievalists.net

The effective healing of street cleaning came about largely by accident, and its beneficial effects were unintended. Until the Black Death plague of 1348, many medieval people just dumped their human waste—excrement, vomit, urine, you name it—into the streets.

Finally, in 1349, Edward III wrote a letter to the mayor of London complaining about the streets being so filthy, believing that the smell of the human waste was contributing to the spread of the plague. Though he was only slightly wrong, much of Europe eventually got its act together. England raised the penalty for anyone caught dumping human waste into the streets to twice and then thrice the levels of the fines before the plague struck.

This greatly helped to manage plague cases by forcing people to remove the human excrement. This had proved to be a perfect breeding ground for the plague bacteria with people coming into close quarters with it.

The practice of horrible sanitation techniques was a stain on medieval culture. When people finally started treating themselves to healthy sanitation, the effects of the plague receded. Much like modern vaccines, this broad tactic worked in reducing the plague outbreak by depriving the bacteria of a place to reproduce and spread.[4]

6. Trephination

Photo credit: ancient.eu

The medical practice of trephination stems all the way back to at least the Neolithic and was practiced in many unrelated cultures around the world. Its logic is fairly simple: If there’s pressure in the body, drill a hole where the pressure is and release it.

This is why it’s so widely practiced by many people around the world. The idea that you can just drill a hole into someone’s head and fix the problems inside seems so silly to us that we can’t help but laugh.

But trephination has actually grown up today from its humble roots. When trephination affects the head, we call it a craniotomy. However, this procedure is used all over the body to relieve problems and obtain access to otherwise difficult-to-reach places.

Although trephination may have been hit or miss, one can only infer that this rendition of bloodletting may have actually done some good even in those times, especially in cases of a head injury or intracranial bleeding. Some people were trepanned multiple times, giving evidence of a relatively decent survival rate for those who had the procedure done in olden times.[5]

5. Bald’s Eye Salve

Photo credit: blogs.bl.uk

Bald’s eye salve is a unique and intriguing topical ointment that was originally designed for the eyes in the ninth century. It’s composed of onions, garlic, various spices, and herbs—just what you’d expect from your usual medieval era remedy. The recipe comes from Bald’s Leechbook, a medieval book of various treatments and remedies that’s over 1,000 years old and is written in old English.

Interestingly, if you take a single ingredient out of the millennia-old recipe, it loses at least some of its effectiveness as a combatant against infections. Even more curious is the degree to which the recipe is effective. It kills some fairly serious bacteria and stops infections, including MRSA, dead in their tracks. Many antibiotics even have a difficult time treating MRSA or are completely ineffective.[6]

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