April 16

Top 5 Most Serious Medical Conditions From the Middle Ages

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Reading time 4 min.

Excruciating, painful, even up to a point that you would think it is sheer torture. That’s how it was to be on the operating table during the Middle Ages.

Back in the days when painkillers and anesthetics were non-existent, how do ‘doctors’ remove an appendix or remove an aching tooth? And what is it that exactly occurred during this period in human history?

Basically, the Middle Ages in European history lasted for about one thousand years, starting from the fall of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century – up to the start of the Early Modern Period in the 16th century.

Those were the days when menstruation in women was a grave medical concern, conception and birth could cost new mothers their lives, and what is today a simple medical procedure became a matter of life and death situations.

The Top 5 Most Grave Medical Concerns Back in the Middle Ages

So what exactly occurred in the field of medicine during the Middle Ages? Let’s take the 1600’s as an example. During these times, medical treatments, illnesses, unusual conditions and anything that has to do with human health was addressed using a combination of several factors.

First, there were procedures like bloodletting and cauterization. Second, there was the use of holy relics, prayers, magic, religious rituals and offerings.

The third factor involved in the treatment were the use of items like herbs, spices, stones, enemas, bandages, ointments and a multitude of other things that, when used in today’s modern medicine, would be considered just plain weird, unusual and ineffective.

So what are the top 5 gravest medical concerns back in the Middle Ages? Take a look at the following list:

1. Menstruation

Can you believe that even something as simple and factual as a woman’s menstruation was a major medical concern back in the Middle Ages? This is especially true in the case of Renaissance, classical and medieval physicians and medical writers. Back then, several theories regarding menstruation existed.

One of the most interesting theories was called the ‘Theory of Humors’. For this, it is said that the buildup of bodily wastes and a woman’s excess humors are the reasons behind her monthly menstruation.

Perhaps a theory which can be traced back in the Middle Ages that persists up to now is that if you do not have regular menstruation, illnesses will occur because of waste buildup in the body.

Also, it is said that if an older woman is at her menopausal stage, the fact that she’s not able to eliminate her bodily wastes through menstruation makes her a threat for men and children who she will be in contact with.

2. Childbirth

Being a mother was a scary medical concern back in the Middle Ages, because they were told to prepare for their death. According to the Roman Catholic law, midwives who were licensed by a bishop are supposed to swear an oath that they would not use magic when assisting a woman who is in labor.

Some critical aspects of childbirth were if the position of the baby is abnormal, the midwife will be shaking the bed to reposition the fetus. If the fetus is dead inside the womb, it will be dismembered and removed with a squeezer. Finally, a placenta which is retained will be pulled out by force.

3. Treatment of Many Illnesses through Bloodletting

Also called phlebotomy, bloodletting is probably one of the most painful cures for headaches that you can possibly think of. At least, it was during the Middle Ages.

The principle behind this medical treatment was that if the human body is relieved of ‘juices’ and humor or the excess fluid in the body, any illness can be healed.

Obviously, there were no needles back then, so leeches and venesection were used to let the blood out. Venesection is a procedure wherein a narrow blade is used to penetrate a vein, leaving a small wound and letting the blood run through a bowl. Aside from curing the common pains, monks in monasteries used this medical procedure regularly to maintain good health.

Fortunately, we are not in the Middle Ages anymore and the medical industry has vastly improved. Instead of undergoing these excruciatingly painful procedures, you can rest assured that the doctors will lull you into a good, long sleep during the operation in case you need to undergo surgery.

4. Headaches, Cramps and Other ‘Unusual’ Pains

It’s really quite amazing the lengths that man has gone through in order to make a particular pain or ailment go away.

During the Middle Ages, running electric current through your body is used to heal a number of ailments – from the common headaches, stomachaches and menstrual cramps – to the more complicated cases of mental disorders. Electric eels and fish were usually used to apply shock and treat headaches and seizures.

5. Raising of Children Up to the Age of 5

Did you know that back in the Middle Ages, mothers had a difficult time raising healthy kids because some of them cannot even reach the age of 5?

What make young children particularly vulnerable during those times were infections, injuries and birth defects which may not have even been named during those times.

Since there were no pediatrics back in the Middle Ages, it has become a grave medical concern to raise children up to the age of 5, simply because there were no means of taking better care of such young kids.

The Role of Women in Medicine during the Middle Ages

Basically, women were confined to home chores back in the Middle Ages. As such, included among their household duties was the medical-related task of offering help and administering treatment when an individual or family member has a health problem.

A woman who is considered to be the female lead in a household usually has to play doctor for her family members, her servants, dependents, neighbors, tenants and almost everybody else who is of a lower status.

Since women were not permitted to enroll in schools and universities, there were only a very small number of women physicians. The one other role that women in society played back in the Middle Ages is being an ‘empiric’.

This refers to someone who is into healing without having undergone any special medical training. The skills that women empirics learned are all from practical training.

Finally, the midwives back in the Middle Ages consisted mostly of women. The same thing holds true for nurses who worked in charitable hospitals back in the Middle Ages.

As you can see, women played a quite varied role in the field of medicine during the Middle Ages, so you cannot discount the contribution that they played in caring for people’s health from back then up to now.


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