Medicine in Twelfth Century Scotland

Jedburg garden

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.

Medical Treatment

 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.

All parts of the elder plant were used in medicine.

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 insect repellent.

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


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