The BBC has run an article online today about how recorded cases in Tudor times of people dying in rather unfortunate ways. This included a maypole falling over, a woman picking cabbage leaves by a moat and tumbling in and being mauled to death in your bed by an escaped bear. You can read more here.
Before the Tudors, death swept away most infants but if you made it in to adulthood, there was always dirty water and poor hygiene to kill you. In fact drinking contaminated water continued to carry people off well in to the nineteenth century until John Snow finally realized, in the midst of a cholera epidemic in London, that it was the water that was infecting everybody. Bravely, he took the handle of the local water pump.
Plague was a regular killer. The Black Death left you with ‘buboes’ – unsightly swellings in your groin, under your arms or round your neck. In case you’re wondering if these growths hurt, one monk said buboes were ‘great in its seething like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of ashy colour’. So yes, they really hurt.
Fungal growth on rye was a great way of contracting “St Anthony’s Fire” – and the fire referred to the extreme agony you felt as your nervous system came under attack. So appalling was this condition that you could expect to go quite mad if you managed to survive.
Ague always crops up as a major killer in the Middle Ages with a variant in southern England called ‘Essex Ague’. The victim would have convulsions and seizures on a regular basis. So what on earth was ague? Well, it was malaria. A disease we now associate with travel to hot climes but in the Middle Ages, you could stay at home in Merrie England and contract malaria from your local fetid swamp. Henry VIII is reputed to have been one victim.
If you needed to be operated on, it was probably a good idea to have the Last Rites before the barber or monk got to you. There were anesthetics of sorts, sometimes referred to as ‘dwale’. One recipe for making an effective anesthetic (don’t try this at home) included lettuce juice, gall from a castrated boar, briony, opium, henbane, hemlock and vinegar. There was enough there to kill you, especially the hemlock, though interestingly the sleep inducing effects of lettuce are adhered to by some in the health food industry.
Here – for your edification – is the administering of medicine in the Middle Ages via a ‘clyster pipe’ in the anus.