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General Medieval Healthcare

Perhaps the best-known medieval medical journal is the late 14th century Tacuinum Sanitatis, shown above, which was a medical codex with almost full-page, colour illuminations. There are several existing copies of this book which vary slightly, but contain, for the most part, the same information.

One copy was written and illuminated for the Cerruti Family and was probably made from Verona. The Tacuinum Sanitatis dealt with many aspects of healthcare- herbs, substances, emotions and types of fabrics. It tell of the benefits and dangers of each and what to do about them. Much of what we know today about medieval healthcare comes from these manuscripts.

The detail at left, is from the Tacuinum Sanitatis and shows a man purchasing medicine from an apocathary. The scales on the bench were used to give correct measure for many of the complicated recipes used.

Only a few textbooks survive specifically dealing with women's health, although it must be supposed that medieval women faced the same kind of daily complaints as the modern woman.

Headaches, ringworm and warts were seen as curses from a displeased God, but home remedies went hand in hand with prayers for the cure of many ailments.

Religious items were genuinely believed to aide with many aspects of healthcare- whether relief for a mother in labour or for assistance with plague. Looking at an image of Saint Christopher was devoutly believed to give protection from sudden death for the next 24 hours.

Wearing a ring or brooch with the names of the three wise men- Caspar (or Jaspar), Melchior and Balthazar- was also good to epilepsy preventative.

Reliquaries, which held a small piece of religious artifact, were a guaranteed recipe for good health and protection from sickness.

The Lamb of God reliquary from the Gilbert Collection, seen at right, would have held a small piece of holy artifact or a small item blessed with holy water.

Many 13th and 14th century rings were also inscribed with the letters A.G.L.A. which were to aid against fevers.

Treatices & books
Hildegard von Bingham, a twelfth century German woman physician, wrote on women's health, as did Gilbert the Englishman in the 13th century. His compilation of remedies are based on a Latin medical textbook and is known as The Sickness of Women. The Tacunimum Sanitatus had an extensive list of natural herbs, foods and plants and what they were good for.

Bloodletting was believed to release vile humours from the body through the wound and was widely practiced on both men and women. The picture at left is a detail form the 14th century illumination, the Luttrell Psalter and shows a doctor releasing blood from an ailing patient.

Many herbal remedies were utilised throughout the Middle Ages, some of which persist today. Taking honey for a sore throat in these modern times certainly does not raise any eyebrows and was a common remedy in the middle ages. Listed below are home herbal preparations recorded for use from as early as the 12th century.

Please don't try these at home. They made be injurious or inflict harm.


It is written in Culpepper's Herbal, that vervain, Verbena officinalis, warded off headaches, although it it not specified how. A 15th century recipe for relief of the migraine gives more thorough instructions;

..take half a dish of barley, one handful each of betony, vervain and other herbs that are good for the head, and when they be well-boiled together, take them up and wrap them in a cloth and lay them to the sick head and it shall be whole...

Weight loss
It seems that as now, the medieval woman could be concerned with her weight.

One did not wish to be thin, as this indicated the lack of means to feed oneself properly, however after childbirth or when weight became greater than desired, slimming tonics were called for.

To enhance loss of weight, fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, at right, seeds are reputed to make people lean that are too fat.

Garden patience or Great monk's rhubarb roots were also used in diet drinks.

Garlic, Allium sativum, at left, was eaten whole like a vegetable. Warm and dried, it was given against poisons but also to kill worms while onion, Allium cepa, steeped all night in springwater kills worms if taken after morning fasting.

Another cure is made thus:

Take lime and twice as much chalk and with wine or water, make a thin cement. Apply with 5 days with a feather to the area where the worm is. On the fifth day, take aloe and a third as much myrrh, crush and with fresh wax, prepare a plaster. Use hemp cloth and tie on for 12 days.

Warts and corns tinctures
The sun dew juice unmixed and applied topically will destroy warts and corns. Spurge or garden spurge milk is good to take away warts if applied externally.

Mosquito repellents
Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, was popular as a flea dispeller scattered or burnt in rooms, and the leaves were rubbed on the skin to deter insects.


The texts attributed to Trotula offer a remedy for body odour for women. It says this:

There are some women who have sweat that stinks beyond measure. For these we prepare a cloth dipped in wine in which there have been boiled leaves of bilberry, or the herb itself or the bilberries themselves.


Marshmallow, Althaea officinalis; Ivy, Hedera helix and Thorn apple, Datura stramonium were still used in twentieth century rural England to soothe injuries, burns and insect bites and have been handed down for generations as herbal remedies.

Alum and pomegranate, Punica granata, at right, are mentioned by Roger of Frugard as ingredients in a lotion to overcome suppuration, and are astringents.

Banckes' Herbal written in 1525 suggests Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis as a medieval antiseptic writing:

boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and thy brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face.

Toilet paper
Although toilet paper- squares made from rice paper which was cheap and plentiful- was known in China as early as the 6th century, it was noted with horror that the Chinese only wiped and not washed with water as other Europeans did.

It seems that toilet paper, and indeed the idea of toilet paper, was unappealing to early Europeans and the use of paper squares was not adopted back home.

Obviously, some kind of wiping system or device was used during the middle ages. There appear to be two that we know of today- gomphus or the gomph stick and torchcut or torche-cul.

The gomph stick was a curved stick and used as we use toilet paper- to scrape.

The torche-cul refers to straw which was used in the toilet. It literally translates as 'arse-wipe' or 'arse-torch' indicating that the straw was used either for lighting in the toilet or as a substance to wipe with. Some people assert that Spaghnum moss was used to wipe with and while we don't know for sure, we find its presence in cess pits.

Perhaps water was supplied for washing down below as well as for the hands and face, but if so, it is not mentioned anywhere I've seen to date.

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