In a programme for Channel 4 and National Geographic, presenter Tony Robinson has been investigating medieval superstitions and in one recent episode – he looked at disease. Why did our ancestors believe illness was caused by demons, elves, sprites and even God himself?
In Anglo-Saxon England, people believed sudden sharp pains were caused by arrows from elves – or ‘elf-shot’. Have you ever thought about the phrase ‘shooting pain‘ or ‘stabbing pain’ and even the idea of a ‘stroke’. The arrows that elves used were often thought to be tipped with stone arrow heads. Why? Because Anglo-Saxons picked up neolithic arrow heads in the forest and not knowing what they were (as their arrowheads were made of metal), thought the stone ones must be from the elves.
The sort of diseases caused by elves were anything resulting in fever or madness – like malaria.
But elves were as nothing compared to evil spirits. They entered in to your body – and your head – and turned you mad. Even in the Roman Empire – people had their skulls bored in to with a surgical knife to release an evil spirit from a patient’s head. Some of these skulls have been found with perfectly round holes.
Epilepsy would have been diagnosed as possession – as would brain tumours. Incredibly, some people survived these brain operations with flint tools – and bizarrely, releasing pressure in the head – albeit for the wrong reasons – actually saved the patient.
Demons were another risk for the patient. They got in to your body by morphing into food or odours or smoke. Pungent smells were associated with the devil – a miasma that had emanated from hell. Plague was seen as infected air from bad objects that entered your body and corrupted it. Food rotted because the devil had touched it. Sniffing infected flesh was enough to give you plague.
This is why people sought good smells – herbs like rosemary – that would protect you. In plague conditions, people would walk round with a kind of cowl or helmet with a long bird beak that was packed with herbs. This strange bird suit was believed to stop you catching the plague and those wearing these costumes, often physicians, would go round perfuming houses affected by plague.
If perfume wasn’t felt to be strong enough – they would use vinegar and in extreme cases, they would even mix herbs with gunpowder and let off perfume bombs in people’s houses. Ironically, the bird suit did save the physicians but only because they weren’t bitten by the fleas that were really causing the plague. The smells had nothing to do with it.
Waking up in the Middle Ages and feeling off colour in the morning was often deemed to have been caused by sin. If you had a venereal disease then sin was clearly the case. But pimples, soreness and aches might also be attributed to sinfulness – you just had to figure out what sin you had committed and start repenting.
Repentance could involve fasting, which would actually weaken your body further. In the fourteenth century, those living in communities stricken with the Black Death took to flogging their own bodies. You told your flesh, by striking it, that your soul was in control of your body and therefore you were nearer to the angels than the animals.
In medieval times, nothing was known about germs and bacteria. When we infect somebody else, we know we still have the disease ourselves. But in the Middle Ages, they believed in ‘transference’. If I got better, it was because I’d passed or transferred the disease on to somebody else. In other words, there was a limited amount of disease around which never disappeared – I just had to get it to pass out of my body to somebody else.
That somebody else could be dead! So, if I had a cyst or sore – I might ask an executioner to cut down a recently hanged man and get his cold, dead hand stroked against my cyst or sore. The dead criminal would then take it with him to hell. But I might try it with the living – and the method could be quite bizarre.
If I had a wart, for example, I would rub a snail on my horrible growth and then leave the snail in a bag hung up somewhere for a stranger to pick up. When he picked it up – he would get the wart!
And I might try and transfer the strength of the healthy in to myself to cure my weakness. A Celtic story tells of a warrior injured by a spear so the treatment was to transfer strength from…a whole herd of cows!!! His followers therefore slaughtered the entire herd and mixed their meat, marrow and bone together to save this one life. A very expensive treatment by the way – rather like bathing in champagne. The warrior, by the way, had to lie in this mixture for three days!
So did any medieval treatment actually work? Apart from accidental discoveries – one of the most powerful positive aspects of medicine in this period was its powerful placebo effect. Medicine was primarily about faith over science. That obviously limits it hugely. But, human beings are odd creatures. The belief that one is being cured can be an effective treatment with certain conditions on its own.
- The Winchester Geese – medieval prostitution (thetemplarknight.com)
- Decoding the Black Death: Anthropologist Finds Clues in Medieval Skeletons (sott.net)
- The Plague: It’s Still with Us (nlm.nih.gov)