Medicine in Twelfth Century Scotland
This priory garden at Jedburg Abbey includes medicinal plants
used in Medieval times. The roses on the extreme left are Apothecary's
roses. Petals were used as an antiseptic and also boiled with honey
to ease sore throats.
The white flowers near the centre of the photo are Madonna
lilies, considered scared and used as altar decoration. The mousey-looking
yellow flowered plant behind is rue, used to keep fleas and lice out
of clothing and was carried against illness.
photo by Janet McNaughton
Ideas about Illness
Imagine living in a world where you have no idea what causes illness,
and little can be done to make people well. In the twelfth century,
people didn't even know bacteria and viruses existed.
Illnesses were thought to be punishments from God, for sins committed
by the person who was ill, or perhaps by a parent or even a grandparent.
If a child was born with a disability, that was also thought to be a punishment
from God for some sin committed in the past. People also believed that
illnesses could be caused by witchcraft, the bad wishes of an enemy put
into the form of a spell designed to cause harm.
Sometimes, illnesses were thought to be caused by other forms
of deliberate harm. For example, a few centuries later, when the plague
swept through Europe killing millions, some people thought that the water
in their wells had been poisoned by outsiders. These people might be
hanged for "causing" the plague.
Each village would have a "wise woman" who delivered babies
and knew some cures. Some individuals could also charm a toothache
away, or set broken bones. Blood stoppers were people with special powers
to stop bleeding. The Church-run abbeys often had an "Infirmary" to care
for the sick. The word "Hospital" was used like the modern word
"hostel," meaning a place where travelers were given hospitality.
It was not used to mean a place to care for the sick until later. Monastic
infirmaries might have a monk who specialized in herbal medicine, or an
infirmarer who cared for the sick. More rare was a medicus
, or doctor.
Because so little was understood about illnesses, some attempts
to cure disease probably did more harm than good. Bloodletting was a popular
way of treating illness. One of the patient's veins was opened to let
the blood flow out. It was hoped that this would let the illness out too.
Of course, we now know that this practice would only weaken a person who
was already ill.
In Scotland, just north of the area where An Earthly Knight
is set, a hospital was established at Soutra in the middle of
the 12th century by the Augustinians. This was only one of three hospitals
in Scotland at the time. It provided shelter for the poor, gave hospitality
to travelers and also treated the sick, including the insane and people
with leprosy. Archeologists have learned a great deal about medicine
by excavating this site. There was probably a medicus at Soutra.
The large quantities of blood found in the soil indicate that bloodletting
was probably practiced. Pollen of cloves was also found. Cloves were
very expensive in those days, being imported all the way from Africa.
Wine spiced with cloves was a special treatment for someone who had
been bled to help restore health. Traces of other exotic plants were
also found on the site, including opium poppy, ginger and nutmeg.
The Elder Plant
This is a photograph of a common elder (Sambucus nigra), growing wild
in the Borders of Scotland. All parts of the elder plant were used in
food and medicine.
The flowers, shown here, were used to sweeten drinks, and a lotion
made from the flowers treated fevers, coughs and eye irritations. The dark
purple berries that follow the flowers were made into wine and jelly. The
bark made a purgative. The leaves were steeped in water to make an
To Find Out More
If you are interested in medieval medicine, visit the
Medieval Medicine Web Site.
To try your hand at being a healer in the Middle Ages, visit the
Medieval M.D. Site