I don’t know about you, but my impression of medieval medicine and dentistry involves barbaric looking drills and vile tasting concoctions and I have often wondered how I would have coped had I been inflicted with illness or injury in the 14th century.
Imagine the fear accompanied with the arrival of wisdom teeth! Most of us have either had a tooth removed or know of someone who has. An impacted tooth is excruciatingly painful and I can see how you could be driven to pull it out, given that several of the known treatment methods of the time included, taking a candle and burning it close to the tooth in the hope that the worms gnawing away at the gum will simply fall out, or binding it with cloth soaked in sheep’s blood. Needless to say a large number of individuals died as a result of dental procedures.
It is claimed that more than 15% of the world’s population suffers from migraines and I, myself, fall into that group. I also have an incredible dislike of leeches. In fact, they repulse me, but I would have been subjected to their ministrations had I sought assistance from a medieval physician. They were placed about the forehead to ‘draw out the poison’ associated with the pain, in much the same was as ‘bloodletting’ was seen to ‘cleanse’ the body and was known as phlebotomy. Both treatments though are preferable to trepanning. I am positive that having a hole drilled into my skull is more likely to give me a migraine than cure one!
If all else failed, you could elect to have the ‘noxious poisons’ flushed from your body! The medieval version of the enema was known as the clyster – a long metallic tube with a cupped end, into which medicinal fluid was poured. The other end (the part they inserted) had a dull point (thank goodness). Fluids were poured in and a plunger used to inject the liquid into the colon or lower bowel. Lukewarm water with lemon juice was most commonly used, though a variety of recipes were also tried and included vinegar, wine and even boar’s blood!
But it wasn’t all bad. Many of the drugs we take today can be found referenced in medieval texts. Poppy Tears, lachryma papaveris, or Opium was widely used for pain relief throughout China and the 14th century Ottoman Empire. Willow bark and mandrake were also extremely effective plants that provided both pain relief and mild anaesthetic and of course we can thank the bark from the willow for the development of aspirin.
So, how would I have coped? The same as everyone else I imagine, particularly as they knew no better but I certainly am grateful for modern medicine.
 The Lily and the Lion – page 409. Cecile and Gillet visit an apothecary’s and discus phlebotomy with Tariq ibn Córdoba, a medieval physician.
 The Lily and the Lion – page 269. Simon administers a small amount of mandrake to control Anaïs.