Medieval Medicine

Why didn’t much change in the Middle Ages?

It was because Medieval people were stupid.

No, not really… there were several reasons why medicine stayed the same. The most obvious one was religion and the Church (capital C because it’s the Church – a specific, definite one – the Roman Catholic one to be precise) rather than a church (lowercase c – the building people worship in)

Religion, or Christianity to be precise, had spread across western Europe,  much like marmite across a slice of toast.

There were a network of priests and bishops in every village and town in every country. This enabled them to spread their ideas and have a great influence on people’s lives. The Church didn’t encourage people to think very much, they just wanted people to follow the Bible and Christian teachings. Nobody was encouraged to question anything.

The Church was also in charge of education, most importantly for the history of medicine, they were in charge of the training of doctors at universities. Christianity promoted Galen because his ideas fit with their own ideas about the body and health. So because Galen didn’t challenge the Church, the Church didn’t challenge Galen. In fact if Galen and the Christian Church were penguins, they’d look like this.

Walking along a beach side by side – ahhh!

What made it even more difficult to change anything was the fact that 90% people worked in farming which meant they didn’t have time for school – an uneducated population is unlikely to make progress.

Furthermore, the job of the King was to be strong in order to protect and defend the country and take care of law and order. Generally speaking he couldn’t give a rat’s anything whether his people were healthy or not.

“Sire, your people are dying on average at the age of 34”

Medieval Beliefs about the Causes and Cures of Illness


  • THEORY OF THE FOUR HUMOURS AND THE TREATMENT OF OPPOSITES: In the Middle Ages people still believed in this theory, people generally don’t like change and the Christian Church was promoting it so there was little impetus to come up with a new idea.
  • SUPERNATURAL CAUSES AND CURES: People still believed that God had something to do with causing illness in people. Mainly they believed that God was punishing individuals, or, in the case of the plague, punishing the whole of mankind because they had sinned. People who wore fashionable clothing were accused of causing the plague because they were paying to much attention to their appearance when they should have been devoting their time to God and prayer. During the Black Death flagellants walked down the street in a procession whipping their backs until they bled. They believed that if they punished themselves it would stop God punishing everyone else with the plague.
  • HERBAL REMEDIES: Still used in everyday medicine and dispensed in the home. Herbs and vegetables would be grown or foraged and turned into remdies by the women in the household. Often these cures would be passed down through generations. Still used things like honey and garlic (same as Romans)


  • ASTROLOGY: Really strong belief that the alignment of the stars and planets affected the health of people. Therefore doctors were trained to use astrological charts as well as urine charts to diagnose illness.
  • MIASMA: Much stronger belief in this compared to the Romans. During the Black Death many people thought that it was spreading through poisoness air. They would wear posies of herbs and sweet smelling flowers to try and clear the air.

Public Health

  • 1301 – 4 women butchers were caught throwing rotten blood and offal into the street
  • 1307 – Thomas Scott was fined for assaulting two citizens who complained when he urinated in a lane instead of using a privy
  • 1343 – butchers were ordered to use a segregated area for butchering animals
  • In 1345 the fine for throwing litter in the street was increased to two shillings. In 1372 anyone who had filth outside their house could be fined four shillings. Anyone throwing water from a window was fined two shillings.
  • 1364 – 2 women were arrested for throwing rubbish in the street
  • By the 1370s there were at least twelve teams of rakers with horses and carts, removing dung from the streets.
  • By the 1380s there were at least 13 public toilets in London
  • Butchers were put in the pillory for selling “putrid, stinking and abominable meat”. The meat was burnt in front of them
  • There were open sewers carrying refuse to the river.
  • Wide streets had two gutters, one at each side. Narrow streets had one gutter in the middle.
  • Homeowners living next to streams built toilets over the streams.
  • Butchers carried waste through the streets, loaded it onto boats and threw it into the middle of the river at ebb tide.
  • Wells for fetching water and cesspools for dumping sewage were often close together. Regulations said that cesspools had to be built two and a half feet (76cm) from a neighbour’s soil if walled with stone, three and a half feet (106cm) if walled with earth

You can have these as a card sort which might make it easier to revise from. You could colour them as positives or negatives about public health, or just memorise some by turning them over and trying to repeat back the information.

Med Public Health Cards

Doctors and Hospitals

Medieval hospitals were run on the principle of care not cure. They were run by monks and nuns who firmly believed that it was God’s job to make people better (as it was Him who had made them ill in the first place) not theirs. All they believed they should do for the sick was to make them as comfortable as possible. Lepers weren’t allowed into hospitals because they were contagious.