Medieval doctors came in four basic varieties each with their own purpose and level of skill.
At the top were the university trained physicians. These doctors well trained in Greek medical theory and were highly respected. They also came with a fat price tag and so the wealthy were the only ones who could afford an actual physician.
Next were the Barber-Surgeons. These guys were also trained at the university but to a lesser extent than the physicians. Their skills in handling knives and razors made them the perfect go-to guy for getting a shave, extracting a bad tooth, setting a broken bone, or sawing off an infected limb. In days before anesthetics, most people avoided the surgery part unless they absolutely had too. One of the most common services that Barber-Surgeons offered was blood letting. Medieval people believed that one cause of illness was excess or dirty blood that caused all sorts of maladies from headaches to disease. The cure- make a cut and release the bad blood from the victim.
Next on the list were the Apothecaries- the medieval version of a pharmacy. The apothecary was the place where most people went to find relief for everyday illnesses and complaints. The apothecary had on store all sorts of natural remedies from special herbs, mushrooms, roots, and animals parts.
People in the villages were often too isolated or too poor to have access to any of the healers mentioned above. Often villagers would seek out a healer (often a woman) who was what we would call today, "street smart". The healer had no formal training and was probably illiterate but they did have knowledge of herbs, roots, and berries that they ground up into cures for common ailments. (Basically, they were a home-spun variety of the apothecary).
Healers used knowledge that came from pagan teachings and so they were often persecuted by the Church as being witches. The Catholic Church held power over all forms of thinking, and medicine was no exception. The Church frowned on any teachings or theories that contradicted their own. The Church put their faith in the teachings of the Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Hippocrates. Medieval doctors were not allowed to dissect dead bodies for scientific study. For these reasons, medical knowledge stagnated and relied on inaccurate foundations for the causes of diseases.
Medieval medical knowledge was very limited by today's standards but in an age where books took months and years to painstakingly copy by hand, knowledge spread at a snail's pace.
Medieval Doctor analyzing a patient's urine.
(often the color, smell, and yes, even the taste, could tell a doctor what was wrong.
Nuns and Monks were the guardians of knowledge in the Middle Ages.
Medieval medical knowledge drew its understanding of illness and disease mostly from the ancient Greeks. The most famous (aka the Father of Medicine) was a guy named Hippocrates who lived in Athens around the 5th century BCE. Hippocrates believed that illness could be understood and cured through scientific observation. By carefully observing the symptoms and environment you could get to the root of what ails a patient. (Correct!) Hippocrates came to conclude that the body is made up of four liquid substances called Humours (no joke!). When the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) were in balance, the body was healthy.
However, bad diet, bad air, or over exposure to certain elements (too wet, too dry) could cause these humours to get out of balance and bam!- sickness occurs. Other Greek physicians like Galen, who lived 200 years after Hippocrates, believed that the humours corresponded to natural elements. Blood was hot and moist like summer air, phlegm was cold and moist like water, yellow bile was hot and dry like fire, and black bile was cold and dry like earth. Using the humours, a medieval doctor could prescribe a range of herbs and treatments to bring the humours back into balance.
Hot Iron For Hemorrhoids
It was once believed that if a person did not pray to St. Fiacre (the “protector against hemorrhoids”) they would suffer from, you guessed it, hemorrhoids. If you were one of those unlucky fellows, you’d be sent off to the monks—who would put a red-hot iron up your anus.
Top: Chart showing the four humors
Bottom: Urine Analysis Chart