Medieval Medicine Unveiled

Medicinal Techniques

In medieval times, any form of concoction with an anaesthetic effect was known as Dwale (pronounced ‘dwal-uh’). Among other things, many of these potions contained hemlock and opium mixed with wine…certainly no doubt about whether they worked! The drawback, of course, was that they often produced the unwanted effect of stopping the patient from breathing too. Thank goodness for modern-day anaesthetists!

Cataract Surgery:
Though very rarely successful, medieval doctors used to treat cataracts by piercing a needle through the cornea and pushing the lens through to the bottom of the eye. No anaesthetic was used, making this excruciatingly painful. This was later successfully done with hypodermic needles and is today a simple outpatients procedure.

If a medieval doctor decided that his patient’s ailment could be cured by losing a large amount of blood, forget leeches! Leeches were (and sometimes still are) used for smaller quantities. Bloodletting in the more drastic sense required the physician to open a vein on the inner elbow using a thin blade called a fleam. This was an extremely common treatment.

Prayer was a common recommendation from physicians. Indeed, for what we now know to be irreversible brain trauma, those with brain damage used to be tied to pews in churches so that prayer could forcibly cleanse them.

This procedure is believed to have been used for those with mental illness. A hole would be cut into the skull of the patient to relieve pressure on the brain. Perhaps surprisingly, we know that some survived this procedure: historians have found skulls showing signs not just of the bore hole, but of regrowth.

Medieval Medical Equipment

This is the blade used for bloodletting. They are known to have been around half an inch long and quite thin. Although comparable sterile instruments are used nowadays, a fleam was used repeatedly, therefore was as likely to spread illness as it was to cure it.

Tonsil Guillotine:
Very much like modern claw clippers for domestic animals, the tonsil guillotine was a double-sided deviceTonsil guillotine designed to remove both tonsils simultaneously. So often did this leave remnants of the tonsils intact or cause excessive bleeding, however, that the modern day solution is surprisingly low-tech: a scalpel.

Bullet Extractor:
Think about this instrument as a corkscrew that you’d use for opening a wine bottle. One of the obvious drawbacks is that the extractor must apply quite some pressure on the bullet in order for it to get a grip for removal. Nowadays, a medical professional wouldn’t dream of removing a bullet while the patient was conscious.

Artificial Leeches:
All the bonuses of leeches, without having to keep any alive! This device used a series of blades and suction in order to let small amounts of blood.

Used for trepanning, this instrument is a hand powered drill used to bore a hole into the skull. In today’s world, when a surgeon needs to get beneath the skull, much more safe and accurate methods are available and deaths are now the exception.

Featured images:
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source:
  •  License: Creative Commons image source

Colin is writing on behalf of medical equipment manufacturer and supplier Teknomek UK

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