Medicine in the Middle Ages: Barbaric Treatments and Religious Beliefs

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The Middle Ages and Medicine

The majority of the population in the middle ageswas very poor, lived in horrible sanitation conditions and had little food. What food they did have was often rotten and of little nutritional quality. These conditions left people prone to illness and encouraged the spread of disease. To make matters worse, medicine in the middle ages was not very good. Doctors did not know the true cause of sicknesses. They also did not know that germs could be spread, so they did not do anything to prevent contamination. Doctors used strange practices, such as blood-letting, to treat people. When you learn about blood-letting and other treatments used in the middle ages, you will be glad you are not from that era.


People during the middle ages believed that God and the devil were responsible for sicknesses. Some major sicknesses such as the Bubonic Plague were thought to be given to people by God as a punishment for sins. Everyday ailments such as headaches or aches and pains were blamed on the devil or the devil’s helpers.

Elves, thought of as the devil’s little helpers, were blamed for shooting invisible arrows, known as elf-shots, at people to cause them to become ill. The Catholic Church helped encourage the religious basis of sickness and told people to pray and repent from their sins to avoid and heal from illnesses. Some people believed that causing pain to themselves would show the repentance of their sins to God. To cause pain to their body, they would whip themselves repetitively.


Some illnesses were blamed on worms, which actually had a basis of truth in some instances. It was not uncommon, especially due to unsanitary living conditions, for people to spot worms in their feces.

The Four Humors

Illness, especially in the later middle ages, was often blamed on an imbalance of the four humors. The four humors were not jokes; they stood for four types of body fluids – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The medical theory of the four humors was taught in medical universities in the middle ages. Doctors thought when the four humors were out of balance, a person became ill. To treat illness, doctors evaluated a patient’s complexion, blood, urine and stool and would issue a treatment based on the results. Doctors had urine charts that listed different colors of urine and the corresponding illnesses they indicated.

Special diets, hot baths to induce sweating, vomiting and blood-letting, were among some of the popular types of medicine in the middle ages used to treat an imbalance of the four humors.

Blood letting was perhaps the most barbaric of treatments. It was performed when a patient was thought to have too much blood. The goal of blood-letting was to remove enough blood from the patient to get rid of the imbalance of the four humors. If a doctor only wanted to remove a small amount of blood from a patient, leeches were placed on the person’s skin. If the removal a large amounts of blood was desired, the doctor cut one of the patient’s veins.


Some Greek and Muslim doctors believed the body was made up of the same elements as the planets in the universe. The four humors were linked to different attributes of the planets. Blood was linked to air, phlegm to water, black bile to earth and yellow bile to fire.

The moon was believed to have a great influence over the elements, or the four humors, of the body – both bad and good. Doctors looked at the alignment of the moon to the planets to determine the best time, when the moon was favorable to the patient, to practice medical procedures such as blood-letting. These doctors also used Zodiac signs to determine treatment for patients. Doctors had Zodiac charts they referred to, which stated when and on what part of the body blood-letting procedures could be performed. Each Zodiac sign had parts of the body that were not supposed to be cut for blood-letting.

Availability of Medical Treatment

Medicine in the middle ages was performed by many types of doctors. Fully trained doctors were educated at medical universities. Training at a university to become a physician took 10 years to complete. Women were not allowed to train at universities, so full-fledged physicians were men. Due to the long length of university training, there were not enough physicians to treat everyone, thus the need for lesser qualified doctors was filled by people who were not trained at universities. These untrained doctors were mostly men; however, there were women doctors as well.

Most people during the middle ages were too poor to afford treatment by a university trained physician and were therefore treated by untrained doctors. Treatment by university trained physicians was reserved for the extremely rich. Most of the poor were treated by “wise-women.” Wise-women were local women who treated people with herbal concoctions. If the wise-woman’s herbal concoctions did not work, a person could go to an apothecary to buy other treatments. If the apothecary treatments failed to work, the person might receive treatment from a doctor known as barber or surgeon. Barbers and surgeons were doctors, not trained at universities, who could perform blood letting and some other procedures.


  • Dawson, Ian; Medicine in the Middle Ages (The History of Medicine); Enchanted Lion Books; July 21, 2005
  • Kelly, Kate; The Middle Ages: 500-1450 (The History of Medicine); Facts on File; August 30, 2009