Andrea is Medievalist and artist with a BA degree in Medieval Studies. She is currently working as a writer, on art commissions and working on getting into film. She shows horses and enjoys reading. She joins us with a guest post about illness and medicine in the Middle Ages and how it’s portrayed in the television series “The White Queen”. You can follow her on Twitter @pinkiecat75 and on Facebook.
Medicine in the Middle Ages was a very different experience than what we know of today. Medicinal practices were still rather crude and primitive, and the harsh reality of dying from a simple ailment such as a cold was an actuality for many. The impact of illness and how drastically it could change ones fate in life was very significant when looking at the reign of King Edward IV of England, and its impact on other family members of that time which in turn affected the stability of the country. Even through modern interpretation, with some artistic license taken, the television show “The White Queen” depicts many scenes and illustrates to the viewer various aspects of medieval medicine. The series also shows how far medicine at the time was interpreted regardless of the outcomes.
Medieval medicine significantly advanced in the thirteenth century with the translation of Islamic and Greek medical texts. One book, Avicenna’s “The Canon of Medicine” was a medical encyclopedia written in approximately 1030 which held valuable information summarizing the medicinal practices of Greek, Indian, and Muslim physicians during that time. In contrast, many medical practices of the Anglo-Saxons were derived from the works of Hippocrates and the works of Galen. It was this information that helped advance the physician’s knowledge of herbs, spices medicines and alchemy which brought them to the threshold of medieval medicine and its importance and usage.
Classical Greek and Roman learning and education had come to an end and it is a common misconception the general populous in the Middle Ages lacked education because of it. This is far from the truth, especially with the growth in learning about medicine. Physicians in the Middle Ages did go to school. The first institutions to have such programs were the Universities of Paris (1150), Bologna (1158), Oxford, (1167), Montpelier (1181) and Padua (1222). At these universities one studied for at least ten years a course of education including the Arts, anatomy and early forms of surgery. The initial pool of doctors was quite small for some time due to the more specific emphasis on the Arts. Around 1350 to 1365, a novel treaty called “Cyrurgia” by Theodoric Borgognoni was written introducing the practice of antiseptic during injuries and the introduction of anesthesia using a mix of opiates and herbs. Eventually these practices were incorporated into a physician’s education.
With the heavy influence of Christianity, pagan or folk medicinal practices came into conflict with the secular world. Many spells or incantations used in conjunction with various herbs and remedies eventually were replaced with prayer or devotions, so the underlying thought of witchcraft was not suggested. Also, to the medieval Christian, illness or disease was widely interpreted as “God sent” or a punishment. An example of this would be the outbreak of the sweating sickness in 1485 after Henry Tudor took the crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The people of England saw the illness as God telling them it was a sign that he was not the true king of England and he had killed the rightful king (Richard III).
Another aspect that is quite significant in “The White Queen,” is how medicine was practiced which is quite different from today. Taking a look at a scene from “The White Queen” where Edward becomes suddenly ill at the end of his reign, we see the doctors using leeches and also bloodletting as a potential cure for his fever. This practice is an indication of the medieval belief in the “humors.” Based in its alchemical roots, these were black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. Each corresponded to an element; temper, organ, and nature. It was thought that when one was out of balance it had to be put back in balance, hence the reason for illness, and in Edwards’s case, the bloodletting was to align these important alchemical humors to aid in making him better.
In addition, the average person and most of medieval society did not understand how disease was spread. They did not know that washing your hands prevented disease, as evident from the mortality rates from childbed fever and other diseases or the idea of staying away from healthy people when sick. They also didn’t understand communicable disease. The pattern and devastation of the Black Death, or bubonic plague and diseases such as tuberculosis where close living quarters and poor sanitation were breeding grounds for these diseases wasn’t recognized. It is now believed the plague spread wasn’t just spread by fleas but was also viral.
Within about six months from 1348 when the disease first hit the shores of England from Asia, six out of ten people had died from the disease in London alone. At that rate, scientists more than likely suggest the disease was spread virally or was airborne. DNA collected from the bodies found in an archaeological discovery in London showed that the victims were infected with the Yersinia pestis strain of the plague, which is perhaps one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known, is another disease that was poorly understood and quite devastating in the Middle Ages. In “The White Queen” when Anne Neville visits her sister on her deathbed, it is not totally clear whether Isabelle died of consumption or childbed fever. But if tuberculosis did kill Isabelle, even after she had died, if Anne was in the vicinity she could have very easily caught the disease. It should also be noted that Isabelle might have had endometrial tuberculosis, which affects the uterus and would explain her poor obstetric history. Historically, it is noted that Anne fell victim to the disease, quickly falling ill.
This brings up the issue of stress on the human body. The last two years of Richard’s reign were not exactly stress free for either him or Anne. The anxiety and trauma from her son’s death may have made her more susceptible and greatly weakened her immune system to the point that the disease moved rapidly and progressed to her death. Some rumors arose that the king had poisoned his wife, but more than likely this was NOT the case. If any medications or medical practices were used, they were more prone to worsen her condition and make her weaker. Mercury was a common form of medicine. It is highly toxic if too much is accumulated in the system. Incense burning in her room would have made it more difficult for her to breathe causing respiratory distress. And bloodletting would have made her weaker. If remedies such as these were used, they would have also been used in conjunction with herbs such as leaves of Lungwort, which looked similar to lungs.
This brings us to the common belief that if an herb looked similar to a certain organ of the body which was being treated, it would help cure that organ of illness or disease. At this time as well, books such as the Welsh “Red Book of Hergest” written around 1400, would have been cited by medieval physicians to treat ailments with herbs very readily available in monasteries as a source. Without the medications and knowledge of today, many diseases including what ailed Anne, ran its course and inevitably ended in death. An interesting thought; whether or not they knew her illness was communicable, Richard was not allowed to share chambers with her towards the end of her life. So it is possible some physicians did have a sense of how diseases spread, but it was not widely or well known.
Medicine and how we treat patients has come a long way since the days of “The White Queen” and of the plague days of the fourteenth century. Scientific advances such as the discovery of penicillin have drastically changed how we cure disease and keep ourselves healthy today. Being ill in the Middle Ages, definitely wasn’t easy nor something anyone would look forward to. The outcome was not likely to have a happy ending.
1. Article in “The Guardian Online” written by Vanessa Thorpe, “Black death skeletons reveal pitiful life of 14th-century Londoners”, dated March 29, 2014 (
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/29/black-death-not-spread-rat-fleas-london-plague) Accessed: 5/1/2014
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_medicine_of_Western_Europe accessed: 5/1/14
3. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608235/tuberculosis-TB/253299/Tuberculosis-through-history Accessed: 5/1/14
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tuberculosis Accessed: 4/30/14
16 thoughts on “It’s the plague sir……the plague ~ A guest post by Andrea McMillin”
Plague is not viral. Perhaps you could clarify that to say that plague was also disseminated by droplets in the air…or that diseases that were known in period as ‘plague’ may have been viruses, whichever was the meaning you intended. But Yersinia pestis is bacterial, and could not also be a virus
A total non sequitur but I don’t care….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw&feature=kp
Bob Newhart is very funny James!
Goodness, I am reminded how lucky we are with our present healthy lifestyles and advanced medical knowledge. Being ill in those times must have been terrifying, and giving birth also carried so much risk.
Of note, the crusades brought back a lot of new things that helped medieval medicine further itself, as well as cooking. Spices, coffee, apocathary stuffs etc.
Weren’t some of the physicians and medical writers in, say, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, “the Bible Lands”, Christian rather than all Moslem?
Good point Peter. I’m assuming they were of both religions.
Just watched the HBO series Sam Adams where measles outbreak was shown, I still feel sick thinking about it!
oopsies, JOHN Adams! lol 😉
For some surreal reason, I got thirsty all of a sudden while reading your post.
I understand completely James! 🙂
Funny thing, apparently John and Sam were cousins and they were portrayed as having some kind of rivalry in the series. Someone referred to John as “Sam Adams” in the show and he got annoyed lol
Thanks for a very interesting article. I will need to pursue your reference to the TV Series “The White Queen”. I have not heard of it.
Reblogged this on Marie Macpherson.