Medicine in Medieval England

My interest in medieval medicine started for two different reasons. I was doing research on head injuries in Arthurian literature and wanted to know how such injuries would have been realistically treated. I was also hoping to find some entertainingly ridiculous medical practices (on the latter, I was ultimately disappointed—medieval medicine was usually rational). In this search, I found Medicine in Medieval England by C. H. Talbot.

Medicine in Medieval England is intended for non-scientists, so it is quite an accessible book. It’s mostly about the development of medical texts and practices, so it contains far more history than remedies. Talbot starts with the Anglo-Saxons and Arab schools, then traces the influence of the latter on Europe and the independent development of new practices. The last few chapters give further examples in specific fields: doctors, hygiene, hospitals, etc. Though no chapter gives a detailed list of specific treatments for specific illnesses, Talbot gives numerous examples throughout the text where appropriate, particularly in the second half.

Overall, the reader can get an excellent picture of how medicine was practiced in medieval Europe. Since Talbot focuses on the transmission of knowledge, this book is a great resource for compiling a list of primary sources for further research. At the end, Talbot gives a list of a few modern editions for such texts.

I purchased my copy of Medicine in Medieval England at a store for rare and antique scholarly books. This one isn’t so valuable that I’d recommend snatching it up when you find it, but it’s worth getting from a library.

Table of Contents

  • Anglo-Saxon Medicine
  • Arab Medicine
  • Salerno
  • Montpellier
  • Medical Education
  • Gilbertus Anglicus and Others
  • Surgery
  • John Gaddesden
  • Anatomy
  • The Orders of Medieval Practitioners
  • Medical Ethics and Etiquette
  • Hygiene
  • Epidemics
  • Hospitals
  • Vernacular Texts
  • The Final Phase
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Medicine in Medieval England — 4 Comments

  1. I am also writing a book and would love to know how they’d have treated a large bump on the head? ut can’t afford to buy a book, could you please let me know, thanks!

    • Sure; I’ll look through my sources and get you an answer sometime this weekend.

      May I assume that you’re writing fiction? If you’re writing nonfiction, it would certainly be worth your time to get some sources you can document from your library. If you’re writing fiction, what kind of bump on the head are we looking at? One delivered with a sharp instrument like a sword, or a blunt instrument? Severe trauma that would damage the skull, or something minor such as hitting one’s head on a low tree limb?

    • Unfortunately, this book is mostly about medical texts and not medical treatments. I can piece together a few ideas from research that I’ve done in the past:

      If the skin was torn, it would be stitched shut and disinfected. Wine was often used for disinfectant, but a thorough washing would have been the first order of business. Swelling would be treated–if there was a great deal of swelling, bloodletting may have been used, but only if the blood that was drawn looked infected. If there was a buildup of fluid under the skin, a small incision would have been made to allow the fluid to drain. This process could be aided by inserting a small piece of cloth. Self-adhering bandages could be made by applying egg whites to either cloth or large leaves. As for bruising, it’s hard to track down treatments, but I’ve heard of animal fat, vinegar, and lavender oil/water all being used.

      Once the physical symptoms were treated, rest would have been important. Medieval man understood very well that a whack on the head could affect thought and behavior.

      Is that helpful?

  2. It’s always fun finding a rare book.

    Hmm…I wonder if they had anything modern medicine could use.

    The ancient Romans also had useful practices that eventually went out of fashion. It took centuries before we saw their practical technology back.

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