The fall of the Roman Empire meant that many of its hygienic practices were soon lost. During the Middle Ages, most people did not have access to safe drinking water, a regular bathroom or a sewage system. Hunger and disease were very common.
Medicine in the Middle Ages was dominated by religion. It was believed that sickness was a punishment from God for the sins committed, and the only way to heal someone was to pray for their forgiveness. Medieval doctors were usually priests or religious scholars. Hospitals were often housed in monasteries. Patients were given food and comfort, but little was done to cure their illness.
Traditional cures using medicinal plants and potions were seen as witchcraft and forbidden by the Church. In the fourteenth century, medical schools were developed in Europe, one of the most important being the University of Montpellier. In these schools, bodies were analyzed, so that the future doctors were not totally foreign to the functioning of the human body.
To diagnose some diseases, the doctors were guided by the color and smell of urine. The imbalance of conditions was believed to play an important role in disease. When the disease was caused by an excess of blood in the body, bleeding was performed. If it was necessary to extract a large amount of blood, the vein was cut.
Surgery, however, was reserved for ‘barbers-surgeons’, not trained doctors. It was a time of frequent wars, which provoked a great demand of these “professionals”. And surprisingly some progress was made in this field. Theodoric of Lucca wrote in the thirteenth century: “Every day we see new instruments and new methods [to extract arrows] invented by intelligent and ingenious surgeons.”
Medieval surgeons used wine as an antiseptic and natural substance (mandrake, opium, and hemlock) as anesthetics. They operated on facial ulcers and even cataracts on the eyes. However, they still did not know that the dirt carried the disease, and many wounds caused death by hemorrhage, shock, and infection.
Some even thought it was good that there was pus in the wounds. A medieval surgeon could cure an epileptic patient by trepanning his skull for the demon to come out. But the greatest challenge for medieval medicine was undoubtedly the bubonic plague (1347), which in some areas killed up to 90% of the population. The main treatments that were applied were prayer, herbal remedies and recipes to clean the air of miasma or venom. The plague was considered a punishment from God.