Sickness in the Middle Ages

I’m going to start another series, this one on how the plague changed Europe. I’ll start by talking about ordinary sickness and medicine, then introduce how the plague was different. Then I’ll look at aspects of society before and after the plague.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that medicine was not very effective in the Middle Ages. Herbal medicines could help a little, but the most effective medical care was ordinary care. Rest, food and clean water were the guardians against needless death. Of course, this implies that many people died from things they might have recovered from, since rest, food and clean water were perks that the poor didn’t have.

Early hospitals were mainly nursing homes for the elderly, and they were generally based in monasteries. Roman army camps had some hospital care, so places where Roman influence was stronger tended to set up health care earlier. Constantinople, the “Eastern Rome,” had tax-funded public hospitals for the elderly poor, but the hospitals also provided some sick and surgical care. The Crusaders who visited (or “visited,” i.e. sacked) Constantinople and its Byzantine institutions began to spread the idea of sick care. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were many models for hospitals.

Italian cities had the best health care. The average monastery offered the next best level of care, and Northern Europe’s hospitals run by religious orders came in third. York, England had the largest hospital in Northern Europe: St. Leonard’s, with 200 beds and lanterns left on all night in the hallways. Most hospitals specialized in care for leprosy, blindness, orphans, unwed mothers, or old age. But most of them ended up with orphans to care for. These orphans had a little school and helped in the hospital.

Most people recovered from sickness at home. Physicians visited the rich, herb women helped the middle-class. Recovery happened or it didn’t. Death rates from infection and infectious diseases were very high, by modern standards. Cancer was known, but it wasn’t common because something else usually got people first. If they didn’t fall into a well.

The infectious model of disease was unknown. Airborne spread of infection was understood as toxic air, not bacteria carried by air particles. Airborne infection was assumed, in fact; so hand-washing and other hygienic measures were ignored. When people died of an infectious disease, their clothing was passed on to the next of kin and generally worn without washing.

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