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How to Survive the Middle Ages

The Medieval period isn’t exactly known for its good food, easy living or successful amputations. Thanks to some vaguely interesting history lessons and a decent dose of Monty Python, it’s likely that the first things that spring to mind when you hear the words ‘middle’ and ‘ages’ are terrifyingly rusty torture implements and piles of mud. This impression isn’t entirely inaccurate- there was definitely lots of mud- but for a decent chunk of the time not everyone was writhing around covered in pus-filled sores whilst being burnt with a branding iron. Some people actually didn’t die horrific, agonising deaths at the hands of nature or the law, usually because they used their common sense rather than listening to their local barber-turned-surgeon. So just in case you find yourself travelling back in time to this most foul-smelling of eras, here is how they did it:

#5: Following monks’ orders

At the start of the Middle Ages, the role of surgeon or doctor in European towns was usually taken by monks. This wasn’t as absurd or dangerous as it might sound, as they made up the small percentage of the population who could actually read and had access to medical literature, which was written by Arabic scholars. They even performed surgeries occasionally, rather than using prayer and meditation to cure the illness, which was common practice.

One of the monks’ favourite surgeries was called trepanning, which involved cutting through the scalp and drilling a hole in the skull. As the dentist-style electric drills we all know and dread today were yet to be invented, this process took a long time, was incredibly dangerous and caused a huge amount of pain. Trepanning was used to treat epilepsy, mental disorders and head injuries and, contrary to common sense, is thought to have actually worked in some cases. The remains of one peasant man, dating back to around 1100, showed that he had been struck on the head by a heavy, blunt object, causing part of his skull to shatter. Trepanning surgery in this case had relieved pressure on the brain and allowed smashed bone fragments to be removed, saving the man’s life. If only temporarily.

#4: Bathing with the neighbours

The monk-as-doctor set up worked quite well until 1215, when the Pope ordered monks to stop practicing as doctors and to instruct peasants to take over their roles. This resulted in a great deal of farmers moonlighting as surgeons, mainly because they had some experience in treating the ailments of their livestock. As a result, by the time the Black Death rolled round about a century later, most European towns and villages housed an illiterate farmer-doctor with almost no medical training. It’s worth pointing out at this point that, contrary to popular belief, Middle Age dwellers had impeccable hygiene standards. They washed their hands before and after meals and frequently bathed with their friends and family, so it must have been a bit annoying when the doctors and authorities told them that bathing would give them the plague.

The theory behind this was that warm water opened the pores and allowed the disease to enter the body, a logic that the masses somehow bought despite their love for bubble baths with the neighbours. As a result of following what was probably the worst advice in history, almost the entirety of Europe stopped bathing and started dying from the air-borne rat disease. Good job, doc.

#3: Taking the pain

After the monk surgeons disbanded, many surgeries were performed by barbers or farmers, without anaesthesia. Some forms of pain relief had been developed, often using hemlock or opium, but these were difficult to come by in poorer, rural areas. As a result, surgery was only used as a last resort for serious cases such as gangrene, cancers and cataracts. As antibiotics weren’t developed until the 1800s, patients were in just as much danger after the operation as they were during, and infections were common. The sporadic nature of surgeries was probably a good thing, taking into account that the ones doing the cutting, scraping and sewing were used to dealing with much furrier patients and were likely to be illiterate. To help them figure out how to hack off a particular bit of the body, they had helpful illustrations such as ‘Wound Man’, which showed them the injuries an incredibly bored soldier wearing only a thong might suffer on the battlefield.

Whilst having an ice pick ripped from your shoulder or a clam removed from your elbow without pain relief might not be an attractive idea, it could be safer than using Medieval anaesthetics. One popular medicine to put patients to sleep consisted of lettuce, gall from a castrated boar, opium, henbane and hemlock juice, which could have caused addiction due to the opium or, slightly worse, death from hemlock.

#2: Not having children

Childbirth in the Middle Ages was one of the most dangerous experiences in a woman’s life. Expectant mothers were told by priests to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins before they went into labour, as more than one in three adult women died during their child-bearing years. No men were present during the birth and doctors were only allowed to enter the room in an emergency, as most Medieval societies did not consider childbirth to be a medical matter.

Due to the fact that rural dwellers would be lucky to have a midwife present, and the labouring woman was in all likelihood tripping on opiates, emergencies were relatively common and not at all pretty. If the baby was in an abnormal position, the attending women would shake the bed in an attempt to turn the baby, because apparently giving birth in what feels like an earthquake is an absolute breeze. Events could take a more gruesome turn if the baby died before being delivered, at which point it would be dismembered in the womb with sharp instruments and removed. It’s tough to decide whether the most disturbing part of this scenario is the chopped up baby or the razor-sharp tools being shoved up someone’s womb. Either way, Medieval spinsterhood is starting to look like a pretty smart option.

#1: Staying on the right side of the law

There were no police in the Middle Ages, which meant that the task of judging punishments often fell to the Church. This might explain why so many people were executed for following a religion that differed from the country’s officially sanctioned faith. The Church was incredibly powerful at this time, but also included in its teachings a duty to be merciful and just, so it should follow that punishments were fair and relatively non-violent. Unfortunately, the Church’s main tactic for preventing crime was to dole out sentences so unnecessarily shocking that they would terrify the rest of the population into being model citizens.

The death penalty was common in England before the 15th century, possibly because murder made up 18.2% of all crimes, and all convicted murderers were sentenced to death. The punishment of death by hanging also extended to perpetrators of arson, forgery and robbery of goods valued at more than one shilling. A staggering 73.5% of all offences at this time were thefts, and one shilling wasn’t a lot of money, so hangings were very common. If convicts wanted to make their path to the gallows even more eventful, they could opt for a trial by battle, which gave them the chance to fight their accuser to prove their innocence. This wasn’t likely to end well though, as the accused would either lose the fight and be found guilty, or win the fight and be punished for assaulting, or killing, their accuser.

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3 thoughts on “How to Survive the Middle Ages

  1. I think the not having babies was the smartest idea. Which meant staying celibate, since marriage and babies inevitably went together. Perhaps you can confirm that the average life expectancy for married women was 30 years and for nuns it was 60 years (allowing for regional differences, plagues etc).

  2. Trial by combat was limited to crimes like rape, adultery, and treason/conspiracy, which were difficult to prove by evidence, which was usually in the form of sworn testimony. The combat served as both the evidentiary and judgment phases of the trial.

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