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Was Medieval Medicine Completely Worthless? Maybe Not.

We cringe when we read about the medicine of past eras. Often it sounds brutal, and likely to do more harm than good.

The theory of the four humors, which originated with Hippocrates and Galen prior to AD 200, was the dominant theory in medicine until at least the year 1800. A balance among four bodily fluids or" humors" (blood, phlegm, green bile and black bile) was believed to be essential for health. Disease occurred when there was an excess of one of these. Remedies such as bloodletting and use of purgatives and emetics were supposed to get rid of the excess. The agonizing death of George Washington involved these remedies.

There is recent evidence that there were actually a few effective treatments in use during the Middle Ages, including at least one with antibiotic properties.

Erin Connolly says “...the Ancient biotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries.… <is> compiling a database of medieval medical recipes … In 2015, our team published a pilot study on a 1,000-year old recipe called Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook,” an Old English medical text.... Bald’s eyesalve contains wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion) and oxgall. The recipe states that, after the ingredients have been mixed together, they must stand in a brass vessel for nine nights before use. ….

In our study, this recipe turned out to be a potent antistaphylococcal agent, which repeatedly killed established S. aureus biofilms – a sticky matrix of bacteria adhered to a surface – in an in vitro infection model. It also killed MRSA in mouse chronic wound model."

MRSA is an abbreviation for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to many modern antibiotics. This 9th century Anglo Saxon concoction kills it.

It should not be a complete surprise to discover that there are some effective remedies in Medieval medicine, ancient Chinese medicine, and the traditional or folk or herbal medicines of many cultures. Physicians who did not have modern lab facilities could still noticed that some remedies worked, while others did not. There are many reasons why ineffective remedies are sometimes retained... some diseases get well on their own, and placebo effects can be powerful in some situations, and when either of these happened the physician probably thought it was due to the treatment administered. Even though their "research" was unsystematic, they probably happened upon a few things that actually worked.

You don't need a modern notion of antisepsis to observe that washing wounds with wine helped them to heal without infection.

Of course, many of their remedies probably caused a great deal of harm; and on the whole, we are much better off with treatments from evidence based modern medicine.

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