Medieval Health

It was easy to die in Medieval times, and lack of a social safety net from the church or the civil authorities was only part of the reason. There were a number of reasons why death was a more frequent visitor in the Middle Ages;

- Most people lived in rather unsanitary surroundings. Thatch roofs were common in the countryside (where some 85-90 percent of the population lived) and while these piles of reed kept the rain out, they were also quite attractive to all manner of insects and small animals (like mice and rats). The wildlife in the roof carried germs and often deposited said microbes on the people or the food they ate. There was no indoor plumbing, latrines were the norm. For those who didn't want to wander out in the middle of the night to take care of business, there was a chamber pot. This device was often emptied not too far from the house in the morning. Such refuse was also unhealthy and tended to get into food or the water supply. The biggest killers, typhus, cholera, and typhoid, were caused by unsanitary living conditions. Typhoid and cholera spread when human excrement gets into the water supply. Typhus comes from infected people having body lice and uninfected people getting the lice, and thus the disease. Not everyone who has a bout of typhus dies, but they remain carriers. So the next time they get lice, they can spread it. Medieval people understood that a clean water supply and lack of body lice (they itch, for one thing) were desirable. They didn't undestand the science behind it, but they knew that cleanliness was a good thing. Naturally, the nobles had an easier time keeping themselves clean, as well as having well scrubbed servants in attendance. Contrary to the popular myth, bathing was popular in the period. The clergy, who wrote most of the surviving history, railed against the popular public baths. These institutions, a descendant of the enormously popular Roman baths, were often staffed by young women who did more than just pass the soap and towels. The clergy didn't like it, the bathers did. However, bathing when the weather was cooler and without benefit of a specially constructed and heated bathing establishment could easily prove fatal. Until recently, the saying, "catch your death of cold" had real meaning. A case of pneumonia could be easily caught and would ruin your days permanently. Medieval people liked being clean, and knew what natural plants and herbs made them smell good also. During the warm weather, on one of the scores of official holidays that crowded the Medieval calender, you would easily find freshly bathed, cleanly dressed, and sweet smelling peasants. Those plunging necklines on the women's dresses and tights on the men didn't hurt either. This was what made special occasions special and, to a large degree, it still does.

-Food storage was primitive. No refrigeration, except in winter, and not much in the way of effective packaging. As a result, most food was eaten fresh. But some foods had to be stored and this is where life often became interesting. A common problem in the period was improperly stored grain, which produced ergot poisoning. In the 20th century, it was discovered that this particular form of spoiled grain was actually a lethal form of LSD. The victems would hallucinate and then, many would die. Certainly something to drive the survivors into church shortly thereafter and thence on their knees in fervent prayer. Most forms of spoiled food were more easily spotted. Meat and fish were salted as a means of preservation and a wise diner would sniff the meal before digging in. Dogs were often kept to provide security from bad food as well as intruders. People were more tolerant of slightly rancid food because there was not, for most folks, a lot of food available. Sauces with a strong taste were invented to mask the questionable taste of meat that had been dead too long without benefit of salting or refrigeration. In any event, sickness and death from bad food was a lot more common then than now.

-Few medicines. There were numerous "folk remedies," some of which were quite effective for dealing with a number of common ailments. But there was nothing like the host of vaccines and antibiotic (anti-bacteria) drugs that were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. These medicines enable one to avoid the lethal effects of many ancient diseases. The devastating diseases are caused by bacteria, which is why the development of antibiotics in the late 1930s was such a signifigant event. Before that, bacteria related conditions like pneumonia, leprosy, or Bubonic Plague were incurable (unless you were one of the few who survived via natural immunity or just luck). There was also little that could be done against cancer, although this was largely a disease of the elderly, a notably small group in Medieval times. While medicines were lacking, medical skill was not. There were formally trained, and self-trained medical experts. The best of these could diagnose many conditions, and prescribe useful treatment in many cases. There was also good knowledge of treating broken bones and lacerations, and even some skill at surgery, albeit without anaesthesia or antisesptics. While the causes of infection were not known in a scientific sense, many medical practitioners knew simple, but effective, methods for dressing bloody wounds in such a way that infection was minimized. A large number of Medieval medical personnel were clerics, which was provident, for in all too many cases the only available treatment was prayer. This, in the Age of Faith, was often quite helpful, as 20th century doctors are beginning to rediscover.

-Medieval living conditions were more dangerous. Most people worked on farms. Then, and now, this is one of the most dangerous workplaces. It was especially bad when most of the heavy work was done by animals. As dangerous as the automobile appears to be, it is actually a major improvement, in terms of safety, over horse drawn transport. This was noted briefly early in the 20th century, as cars and trucks displaced horses, but since generally forgotten. In fact, the number of pedestrians injured in traffic accidents in most American cities is much lower today than in the horse and buggy days. Large animals, no matter how domesticated, are still dangerous. If an ox steps on your foot, you're in for a world of hurt. While automobiles can be turned off, large animals are always on, and they have minds of their own. Medieval workplaces and tools were more dangerous: Think about how one uses a sickle to reap grain, swinging it with the right hand, while hold the grain with the left. Even houses were dangerous. There were no building codes in most areas and the collapse of ill-constructed homes was rather more common than today. Open flames in the house was common, for cooking and light. Thus fires were more frequent, and there were no fire departments (except in a few cities, emulating an old Roman practice). There was also more violence in the Medieval period. Taverns were rather common, heavy drinking tolerated, and nearly everyone was armed with some kind of knife. It was said, with some justification, that a knight was more likely to die of a knife wound in a tavern than be the victim of a heavier weapon on the battlefield. After all, soldiers spent more time in taverns drinking than on battlefields fighting.

-Women had it particularly tough with regards to childbirth. Pre-natal care was homespun, and less efficient that what is now available. Childbirth itself was less sanitary, leading to a greater chance of fatal infection. Complications were more often fatal, as it was not customary for trained medical personnel to attend births. Midwives were used, but their medical knowledge was minimal, or even dangerous (dirty hands causing infection where clean hands would not).

Physicians of the time liked to say that they could cure anyone between seven and seventy. This was a stark acknowledgement that once one survived the diseases of childhood (when one's immune system was at its weakest), clean and careful living would lead to a relatively long lifespan. It was also said of physicians that their principle function was to entertain the patient while nature effected a cure. Until this century, a physician's most valuable technique was a good bedside manner. Often just calming the patient down enabled the body's own natural defenses to produce a recovery. In this respect, physicians got quite a lot of competition from the clergy. Someone who was ill was made to at least feel better if a cleric of known holiness came to visit and lead friends and family in prayer for divine intercession. This was a period in which miracles were not only believed in, but often depended on. What the Medieval folk lacked in the way of modern medicines and machines they partially made up with tender loving care. And chicken soup was even then known to cure colds and fevers. It worked then as it still does now. Scientists have even discovered that the chemical composition of chicken soup and the effects of the hot vapor actually do speed recovery from colds and the like. So the 14th century victems of injury and disease were not as medically bereft as one might think.