Invisible Imps & Medival Medicine

On Monday 9th May 2022, Chris Carr presented a talk entitled “Invisible Imps and medieval medicine”. She was in medieval costume of the Lady of the Manor and explained what she was wearing – a silk veil to show wealth, a green cote and a surcoat with cut away arms. Under all that was a shift which was the only item washed. The hat with a barbette (a narrow chin band) attached to the fillet on top. Her hair was in a net. All medieval women wore their hair netted because nits were rife and the nets kept them to yourself. Such women would bath daily to show wealth because they could afford the wood to heat the water. Bathing in general was not mixed sexes even though clothed because of the likelihood of indiscretion leading to the “French disease” in England (known as the “English disease” in France) and as syphilis now.

Herbal remedies were common and hemlock, henbane and foxglove were used but were poisonous in the wrong hands. More recently there was a court case of a wife using small amounts of finely chopped foxglove leaves in her husband’s salads. The digitalis (digoxin and digitoxin) built up slowly and eventually caused a heart attack. She is now in gaol. In medieval times there were often unpleasant smells which were counteracted with pleasant smelling herbs carried in a muslin bag. Rosemary, sage and thyme was usually the main components but lavender also featured. During the plague faces were covered (topical!) and plague doctors wore headdresses with long beaks containing sponge soaked with vinegar to ward off the plague. The logic of this was that all mammals died of the plague but birds did not. So dress as a bird. The above mentioned herbs were used for many ailments. However for gout it was considered that catching a frog and removing the leg which corresponded to the gout affected leg, and tying the frog’s leg to yours and then throwing it away would cure the gout. For epilepsy you should wrap deer skin around your neck and when the fit had finished, bury the deer skin in the churchyard. Alternatively carry a piece of parchment with the names of the three wise men to keep epilepsy at bay.

Water was drunk if the source was good but usually strained through cloth. The Lady of the Manor would be responsible for minor surgery, the skill being handed down. A collection of medieval instruments used was shown and explained. If anaesthesia was required then apart from much beer, hemlock in wine was used and surgery carried out quickly. The hemlock acts peripherally before affecting internal organs so was effective if the patient was made to be sick as soon as possible after surgery. The wound would be sealed with moss or spider’s web. The more wealthy houses would employ their own surgeon who would take your horoscope first before testing a urine sample. Look, smell and taste was the routine. In medieval times women’s anatomy was a mystery, while the male anatomy was more understood through war. The womb was considered a floating object wandering around the body and to treat a hysterical woman they were slapped to make the womb return to its correct place. (Note hysterical derives from the greek for womb.) If a woman was pregnant and was within one month of giving birth, she would be shut in her room with the windows closed and her hair let down so that any knots could be combed out. The removal of knots meant an easier childbirth. The closed windows prevented any bad influences coming in. Later the midwife would be sought with short nails and clean hands. So there was some recognition of cleanliness being a good thing.

Life expectancy depended on a variety of situations. An average is not the best index. About 50% of children died before the age of 12, and if you survived war and pestilence you could expect to survive to 60 or more.

The medieval imps in the title of the talk relate to the unpleasant smells which abounded and it was thought that the smells contained harmful imps which could be avoided with the sweet smelling herbs carried .

An interesting and informative account of medieval practices, making us thankful that we live in a modern age.


The next meeting is on Monday 6th June at the Methodist Church in Warboys. Start time 7.30pm. Visitors welcome.
Brian Lake

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