Delving into the Dangerous and Bizarre Practices of Medieval Medicine

When we think of medieval medicine, we often conjure up images of wise old healers using herbs and natural remedies to cure all sorts of ailments.

medieval-merchant pharmacy shop
medieval merchant pharmacy shop

However, the reality of medieval medicine was far from idyllic. In fact, the history of medicine in the Middle Ages is filled with tales of gruesome surgical procedures, bizarre medical beliefs, and ineffective treatments that often did more harm than good.

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Plague Doctor Methods Blood Letting Sucking leech

Surgery in Medieval Times

One of the most disturbing aspects of medieval medicine was the practice of surgery. Without the benefit of modern anesthesia or antiseptics, surgical procedures were incredibly painful and often deadly.

Surgeons were viewed with suspicion and disdain by the wider population, and were frequently associated with other unsavory professions like butchers and barbers.

“Medieval medicine was a time of great suffering and desperation. The medical practices of the time were often bizarre and unproven, leading to a high mortality rate and a general distrust of medical professionals.” – Dr. Mary Fissell, Professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.


One particularly gruesome surgical procedure that was commonly performed in medieval times was trepanation, also known as drilling or cutting a hole in the skull. This procedure was believed to relieve pressure in the brain and cure a wide range of ailments, from headaches to mental illness.

However, the procedure was incredibly dangerous and often resulted in infection, brain damage, or death.

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Another common surgical procedure was amputation, which was often performed without any form of pain relief. Surgeons would use a saw or a knife to remove limbs, and would cauterize the wound with a hot iron to prevent bleeding. However, infection was a constant threat, and many patients died from gangrene or other complications.

“The lack of scientific knowledge and understanding of anatomy in the Middle Ages meant that surgery was a dangerous and often fatal last resort. Physicians relied on superstitious beliefs and arcane theories to diagnose and treat their patients.” – Dr. Carole Rawcliffe, Professor Emerita of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia.

Bizarre Medical Beliefs and Practices

Aside from surgery, medieval medicine was also characterized by a number of bizarre medical beliefs and practices.

For example, many physicians believed in the theory of humoral medicine, which held that the body was composed of four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), and that disease was caused by an imbalance of these humors.

How the Black Plague Spread in Middle Ages

Treatments for this included bloodletting, purging, and other painful procedures that often did little to alleviate the patient’s symptoms.

Another common medical belief was the idea that illness was caused by supernatural forces, such as demons or witches.

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This led to a proliferation of bizarre treatments and remedies, such as wearing amulets or charms, drinking potions made from exotic ingredients like unicorn horns, and even exorcism.

“While medieval medicine was often cruel and ineffective, it laid the foundations for modern medical practice. The trial and error of medieval physicians led to the discovery of new treatments and the development of more advanced surgical techniques.” – Dr. Winston Black, Associate Professor of Medieval History at Rutgers University.


Overall, the history of medicine in the Middle Ages is a fascinating and often shocking subject. While we can appreciate the ingenuity and dedication of medieval healers, we cannot help but be horrified by the barbaric surgical procedures and superstitious medical beliefs that characterized this period.

By examining the dark side of medieval medicine, we can gain a deeper understanding of the human experience, and appreciate the remarkable advances in medicine that have been made since then.