Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Medicine


The most common concept of medieval medicine that I hear is “bloodletting to release the evil spirits.” Though I have found recommendations that people with certain dispositions undergo bloodletting at certain times of year, I have never found a reference to “evil spirits.” Bloodletting practices are related to the idea that just as the heavens affect seasons and tides on Earth, they also affect human bodies. Man was a microcosm composed, like the earth, of 4 elements that had to be balanced. [1] However, for a specific illness, bloodletting usually required the following symptoms:

  1. Swelling
  2. Discoloration
  3. When let, the blood is thick and black or dark-colored [2]

Books usually state that if the blood is bright when it flows, then the physician should stop immediately because bloodletting will be of no benefit. Medieval doctors considered bloodletting a serious ordeal since it caused weakness and great chances for infection, so many places established strict laws regarding bloodletting. [3] In reading medieval literature, I have yet to find a reference to bloodletting (this isn’t an assertion that they’re not there—I just haven’t found any, so they’re not terribly common). In Arthurian literature, where the usual injuries are battle wounds with occasional poisoning, the remedy is almost always either bandages and rest or a miraculous ointment.

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King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure

Few copies of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure are available. I am indifferent in announcing that King Arthur’s Death by Larry D. Benson is perfectly mediocre. With that said, it’s also the only copy of the two works that’s easily available. The TEAMS Middle English Texts series tries to produce texts that are otherwise difficult to find. Tracking down copies of the Stanzaic and Alliterative is very difficult—apart from this text, only translations and facsimiles are in print, and those not of the same quantities of Le Morte Darthur. I’m not familiar with the publishing companies that produce the facsimiles, so I haven’t yet chanced a copy.

My problem with King Arthur’s Death is that Benson regularizes the spelling for the benefit of readers who are not practiced in Middle English, not a common practice for TEAMS. I/j/u/v standardization is helpful, but since I’m experienced in Middle English, I find the full modernization frustrating to read. I much prefer the fragment from the Alliterative included in Norton’s supplementary material, but it’s only a few pages and the full text is unavailable.

With that said, King Arthur’s Death is a Middle English text with regularized spelling, not a translation. The introductory material and footnotes are adequate; the text is glossed where necessary. King Arthur’s Death is easily available online, and TEAMS publishes a free copy on their website for those who cannot afford the book. I would have preferred a different copy (perhaps I’ll tackle one myself someday), but as the Stanzaic and Alliterative are vital for understanding Malory’s work, as they were two of his major sources. Since this is the only copy available, it will suffice.

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The English Major System of Weight Measurement

Many English majors, if not most, will admit to having no talent for math. I certainly will. To give English majors a point of reference when judging weight, which will help in planning trips to the library to trade out textbooks, I give you the English Major System of Weight Measurement. Its basis is imperial units, but as textbooks have the same heft regardless of the country in which they are read, the EMSWM will assist in international communication between scholars.

Here are some handy conversions for quick reference. I suggest printing out this little chart and keeping it in your wallet in case of emergency.

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Dæȝ of Geek Mōde

þis sƿefn geeklinga

Ic mōdelicu eom þæt ic geek eom. Ic mōdelicu eom þæt ic blog in ȝereordum dēadena cann tō ƿrītan. Ic mōdelicu eom þæt ic sƿeord habbe, þæt ic Þā II Ƿrecendas þriƿa ȝeseah, and þæt ic ƿāt þæt Laufey sēo mōdor of Loki is and his fæder nis. Todæg, mīn frēondas, wē cyningas sindon!

I tried to translate this into Latin for those of you who aren’t studying Old English, but I’ve only made it through Chapter 8 of Wheelock, so I don’t know all of the necessary conjugations yet. Next year, amīcī meī!

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Women

One of most common statement about women in the Middle Ages is that they were “just property” and “lowly servants.” This statement ignores the accomplishments, achievements, and duties of the medieval woman. It encourages the idea that before the 1960s, women had unfulfilling, meaningless lives. This is problematic.

Legal Property

Short version: Many records exist of women who owned property, inherited property, administered their property with the same authority that a man would have, owned businesses, offered economic advice, took control in legal disputes, held secular and religious authority over men, and gave advice in military affairs.

Long version: Régine Pernoud stresses that in the 13th C, a woman’s reign was a natural occurrence: “It would not be possible to list the total number of women who, in feudal and medieval times, administered what were sometimes very large domains.” [1] Concerning royal authority, Pernoud mentions that in the Middle Ages, both queens and kings were crowned individually by an archbishop, which placed equal emphasis on both of their roles. [2] Not until after the Middle Ages did this change. Dhuoda, a French queen who lived in the mid-800s, shows in her writings that she is familiar with the political circumstances of her realm and with craftsmen’s work. [3]

In the middle of the 6th century, laws of inheritance said that only men could inherit, but this law was limited to hereditary family property—the main landholding, the family manor. Daughters could inherit this piece of property only if the family had no sons. Apart from the main landholding, all other property could be distributed equally between sons and daughters. [4] Likewise, a woman’s dowry was her own property which her husband could use, but could not dispose of. Women could use their husbands’ property, replace them in judicial matters if they were absent (permission wasn’t needed), and retain parts of their property upon their deaths (rules varied by circumstances). Women administered their own lands during their lives and after their husbands’ deaths. [5]

Authority does not apply only to royal women. Notary records show that women of lower classes owned shops or engaged in trade without requiring any influence or permission from their husbands. [6] Even female serfs, women of the lowest class, owned property in their own right. [7] In the religious realm, in the monastery at Fontrevrault, the founder Robert d’Arbrissel ordered that nuns and monks in the order should be separated at all times, save when they met in the church that joined their cloisters for Mass. He also ordered that the whole abbey, men and women alike, should be run by an abbess. He declared that the monks should serve their abbess in the spirit of St. John, who cared for the Virgin Mary after Jesus’s death. [8]

Women had a huge amount of influence on the social aspect of medieval life. Manners and refinement were primarily learned from women, but were also necessary if a man was to please a woman. In Traité d’Amour, by André le Chapelain says that “women being the origin and the cause of every good, and God having given them such a great prerogative, they must show themselves to be such that the virtue of those who do what is good incites others to do the same.” [9] This is exemplified in Arthurian literature where a knight must show not only military skill, but also refinement to win the woman he loves. If it were true that women’s desires and opinions did not matter, then why would medieval men have written so many poems and books about men striving to please the women they love?

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Wordcraft: New English to Old English Dictionary and Thesaurus

Every medievalist needs Wordcraft by Stephen Pollington. Old English grammars only have OE to MnE glossaries, but most students don’t learn simply by doing translations. We review notes, we write practice sentences, and we have moments of “Wait, how do I say ‘table’ again? Oh, I can’t look that up because my grammar only does OE to MnE.”

Wordcraft is designed for the student who wants to improve his linguistic skill by generating original sentences as well as translating originals. Wordcraft is not a comprehensive list of every word that appears in the OE language, so in the introduction, Pollington outlines his criteria for omitting words—he omitted personal names, many place names, and what he calls “obviously poetic words” since students easily pick these up when reading works like Beowulf. Words included are primarily early West Saxon with notes on spelling variations if one wishes to work with word that aren’t from this dialect (though he includes some other important words not found in this dialect). Likewise, the book does not note dialectical or historical divisions, which is only a problem if one is trying to produce poetry that sounds like it comes from a specific region and decade. If one needs this book, one probably isn’t trying to write with such distinct accuracy.

The first part of Wordcraft is a dictionary. The second half is a thesaurus divided by concepts in order to help the student writer find words that translate according to context as well as literal meaning. Most dictionary entries include a code to find the appropriate concept in the thesaurus. Wordcraft is not a grammar book. Apart from some notes on pronunciation, Pollington gives little grammar information. However, he recommends three grammar books, among them Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English.

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Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Serfs and Peasants

Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I’m being repressed!
King Arthur: Bloody peasant!
Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn’t you?

Sorry, Monty Python fans. It’s a great scene, but it does nothing to help viewers understand the social position of the medieval peasant.

Slaves, Right?

Régine Pernoud wants to be especially clear on this point: “The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man. [1] The disappearance of Roman law in the 5th and 6th centuries brought with it the disappearance of slavery, a practice seen as incompatible with Christianity. [2] The biggest definition is that under Roman law, slave masters had the right of life and death over their slaves, but masters did not have the right of life and death over their serfs. [3]

The serf was, however, tied to the estate: he was forbidden to leave it. Pernoud puts this information in a specific context for the reader. Agriculture, which depended on the serf, organized and defined medieval culture. “[T]he lord of the domain could not expel him any more than the serf could ‘clear out.’ It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for, in all other aspects, the serf had all the rights of a free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land, as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass to his children after his death. The lord, let us note, had, although obviously on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.” [4]

A slave master, in contrast, had complete control over the life of the slave. A slave had no rights to marry, establish a family, or own property. He could be bought or sold. The serf could not. [5] Records exist of serfs who did own property and who sold it to buy their freedom. [6] The Church greatly encouraged emancipation of serfs, and entrance into its ranks could be a great source of social mobility. [7] Monasteries often rented land to serfs and free men alike, and “examples of serfs who attained high ecclesiastical or lay positions show…that the religious communities did not consider peasants to be a convenient reserve labor force….” [8]

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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.

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Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths

I wish that I had discovered Those Terrible Middle Ages by Régine Pernoud at the beginning of my graduate school career rather than a few weeks before graduation. Since beginning my studies, I suspected that the average person had a great deal of misinformation in his head about the Middle Ages, but I always wondered if I might have been too idealistic about certain historical facts. Pernoud deals with all of those facts, misinformation, and stereotypes that inform modern ideas about history.

The original French edition of this book was published in 1977, so some of Pernoud’s complaints are not as concerning now as they were then. However, it is interesting to see how many ideas have not changed. Pernoud begins with the idea that learning stopped in the Middle Ages, starting with the founding of universities, manuscripts, art, and architecture. Next, she discusses the position of the serf with evidence of freedom that is likely to disappoint anyone who loves Monty Python’s peasants with their piles of filth.

In Chapter 6, Pernoud moves on to the position of women in the Middle Ages, both religious and laywomen. This chapter is mostly a brief summary of what can be found in Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, but is useful for review or in case a copy of that book is hard to find. Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the necessity of understanding historical events in their historical context, particularly concerning charged and misunderstood issues such as the Inquisitions. The final chapter contains basic advice on teaching history.

My favorite aspect of this book is the anecdotes, sprinkled throughout, of ridiculous questions Pernoud has been asked or ridiculous proclamations she has heard in her career. Some of them are laughable—for example, the man who asked for the city where the treaty that ended the Middle Ages was signed. Some are sad, such as the children who summarized 1000 years by saying only that peasants had the plague and were told that they knew their history well (sad not for the children, who are only repeating what they have learned, but for the teachers who taught them this terribly simplified version of a complex period). Like Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, this book is not one for scholarly in-depth research. However, it’s a perfect general introduction for students and great reading for anyone not involved in graduate-level research.

I’ve never found Those Terrible Middle Ages in a store, but Amazon has it new for $9.71 and used starting at $4.99. I don’t currently own a copy—I’ve checked it out at several libraries—but for that price, I really need to buy one.

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Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Cleanliness

Phineas and Ferb: “Grandpa Fletcher, we should have a medieval tournament like the knights did in days of yore! We can have jousting, a catapult, and not bathe.”

One of the most common affirmations I hear about the Middle Ages is that people did not bathe, cited by the example of Queen Elizabeth I having only two baths in her life (never mind that Queen Elizabeth I did not live during the Middle Ages). The other I hear is that rich people never ate vegetables. Thankfully, medieval man had more sense than to live in these ways, though this may be a disappointment to anyone who loves Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Renaissance fair turkey legs (never mind, again, that the Renaissance is not the Middle Ages—most people at the fairs don’t bother with the distinction).


One of the most-read treatises on health that was circulated during the Middle Ages was the Regimen sanitatis from the medical school in Salerno. Aimed at the upper classes, it places emphasis on “the necessity of combing the hair, cleaning the teeth, washing, changing one’s linen and many other things usually associated with a much later age…. But the fact that such ideas were commonly bandied about is proof enough that dirt and filth were not the accepted concomitants of life in a medieval city.” [1] Bathing with soap had been considered a medical necessity since Anglo-Saxon rule, and the Middle Ages favored cleanliness even more than citizens of the 16th and 17th centuries. [2] The wealthy could have baths in their own residences, but plenty of public bathhouses, separated by sexes and supervised by a bath keeper, were available for the poor. [3] In 1292, Paris had 26 public baths. [4]

Cleanliness was seen as very important for health, but not for the ways that we think they are today. Nobody knew about germs, of course—people thought that disease spread by bad smells. However, the links between squalid surroundings and disease were obvious from experience. [5] Courtesy books begin meals with hand-washing. [6] Doctors often washed their hands before treating patients. Full-immersion baths were often prescribed for sick people with temperatures carefully regulated to the 4 humors. A hot-blooded person should have a cool bath. A cold-blooded person should have a warm bath, but not so hot that it makes him sweat—this could make him too dry, which would aggravate his illness. Baths for the ill could be prescribed at times numbering from once a week to twice a day.

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