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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Diseases of the Middle Ages

Anyone with even an elementary understanding of the history of the Middle Ages is aware of the fact that disease and sickness was a reality that literally infected the whole of society.  Try as they did, the people of the Middle Ages were ill equipped to combat the various illnesses that perplexed even the brightest of Medieval physicians (if you can even call them that).

We all recognize the fact that Medieval Europe lacked even a basic understanding of many important health and wellness practices.  Simple concepts like hygiene (i.e. washing your hands with soap and water) were only understood by a select few, and even in such cases their understanding would be considered woefully inadequate by today's standards.  These deficiencies were, in most cases, the result of honest ignorance.  How could Medieval society be expected to understand how microorganisms like bacteria and viruses infected the body?

Despite their obvious disadvantage, Medieval practitioners of medicine did their best to diagnose and treat the various mystery illnesses that came their way.  And though we may find their methodology for treating the sick to be barbaric or downright strange, it is important to recognize how Medieval medicine set the tone for future generations.  The following are some of the more bizarre (or "unique") illnesses/diagnoses that many Medieval patients experienced:

1.) "St. Anthony's Fire": At the end of the 10th century, many citizens of the Medieval world (particularly in France and Spain) fell sick to "St. Anthony's Fire," which was an illness that primarily resulted in painful sores that grew on the legs and groin.  It was believed that the only cure was to seek aid from a monastery or church where the blessings of God (along with whatever home remedy that particular church employed) would cure the patient.  In reality, St. Anthony's Fire was Ergot poisoning.  Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye, particularly in wet and cold conditions.  If the rye is not cleaned before it is ground up to make grain, the fungus infects the body, resulting in painful sores on the body.  The reason Medieval patients experienced relief when traveling to churches may be due to the fact that they were no longer eating the infected rye from home.

2.) "The King's Evil":  was a disease in which the patient experienced severe chest pain, along with black masses on their neck and chest area.  It was believed that the disease was the result of either witchcraft or poor blood circulation in the body.  Medieval doctors believed that it was the liver that was responsible for blood circulation, while the heart circulated "vital spirit" (the blood of the soul?).  And since the liver is black, it was believed that the black sores on the neck and chest were evidence of a sick liver. Treatment for this disease was, interestingly enough, for the patient to receive the touch of royalty.  But since a king/queen couldn't be expected to touch every sick peasant, royal leaders elected to touch special coins that had been blessed by the hand of the crown.  The sick would then place the coins on their neck and chest, which would supposedly cure the patient in a matter of hours.

Reality is that "The King's Evil" was a rare form of tuberculosis called scrofula, which infects the lymph notes of the human neck resulting in black masses.  Mortality for this disease was estimated in some countries at 40%.

3.) "The Ague": was a disease common in the low-lying areas of Europe and eastern England. The disease resulted in fever, chills, profuse sweating and severe headaches.  "The Ague" was believed to be the result of "bad air" and an imbalance of the "four humors" of the body (i.e. blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).  Treatment included everything from bloodletting (cutting and bleeding the patient) to an assortment of strange herbs and potions.

Truth of the matter is "The Ague" was nothing more than malaria carried by the mosquito. Obviously the Medieval world was not aware of how insects could transmit disease to humans.

4.) "The Bloody Flux": was another illness believed to be the result of imbalance of the four humors.  Interestingly enough, it was also believed that the "Bloody Flux" was a possible punishment from God for adultery and other sexual impropriety.  "The Bloody Flux" resulted in diarrhea, dehydration, bloody stools, and stomach cramps.  In reality, "The Bloody Flux" was nothing more than Dysentery, which was caused by contaminated food and poor hygiene.

5.) "Water Elf Disease": was an illness that resulted in painful red sores on the body, watery eyes, itchy skin and severe fatigue.  It was believed that "Water Elf Disease" was the result of witchcraft, particularly a witch's spell.  Treatment for the disease was usually a combination of various herbs and other local potions.  In addition, it was believed that chanting certain songs could remove the curse of the witch who had made the patient sick.  The most common song went something like this:
I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase, nor sores deepen.  By may he himself keep in a healthy way.  May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear.  May earth bear on you with all her might and main.
Medical practitioners today, along with most kindergarten children, know this illness quite well. Today we call it chickenpox or the measles.

And though we may laugh at the silly names, remedies and alleged causes that the Medieval world gave to these (and many other) medical conditions, remember that this was no game for those who lived it.  In their minds, witches were real, spells had actual power, the divine touch of a king could heal, and sometimes God was simply manifesting his wrath.  The Medieval world was no pick nick.
Maybe all the Renaissance Festival nerds and wannabe knights who pretend to be great Medieval warriors would do well to remember this.  The next time you get sick, just bleed yourself, have your buddy give you a spell, or ingest some strange potion.  Don't dare go to a hospital!

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