Life expectancy was low compared to rich modern countries like Britain.
Childhood mortality was very high – many young babies died and more than a quarter of all children did not live beyond their fifth birthday. Many women died in childbirth. More
Medical problems simply could not be treated in the way they are now.
However, if people survived to become adults, their chances of surviving into late middle age, or even old age, were not too bad. More
Leprosy was one of the most feared of all diseases.
Lepers were forced to live in communities a long way away from the rest of society. They were looked after by monks who, themselves, often caught the disease. More
The main health problem was malnutrition.
Medieval diets lacked vitamins A, C and D and were low in calories, making it important for most people to drink ale regularly. However, the diets were also low in fat and high in fibre, which was healthy. The main problems were caused by population growth (too many people for the amount of food that was grown) and poor weather. More
Most people carried out manual work.
Unlike today, most people did some physical work and even the rich exercised by hunting, horse riding and practising their archery skills. For the poor, working outside in all weathers took a high toll on their health. More
The way of life in medieval times was not as hygienic as today.
People did not know about germs and did not always wash their hands before preparing food. Food was served from wooden plates, which were hard to keep clean, especially since there was so little clean water. People at banquets or feasts would wash their hands before a meal and during the courses in scented water, as cups and plates were often shared. More
Although hygiene was poor by today's standards, cleanliness was highly regarded.
From the time of the Crusades there were bath houses in towns (known as the stews). It is thought that people at this time bathed more often than at any other time up to the 19th century. Bathing was an event and it was common for hosts and guests to share the experience. The rich would sometimes enjoy food and music whilst in the bath. Advice in 'Curtasye books' was that nails should be clean and hands, face and teeth washed every morning. More
Homes were unhealthy places.
The houses of both rich and poor were cold and draughty. This led to a lot of pneumonia in the winter months, and many older people died from this illness. Smoke from fires was also very bad for people's health. More
The water in towns was usually badly contaminated with germs.
In the countryside, where most people lived, many villages were built near streams and rivers, so clean water was not too hard to get. Deep wells also gave access to clean fresh water. It was very different in towns. More
Towns were very unhealthy places to live.
They were crowded and filthy, with no proper drains or sewers. The streets were, in many cases, open sewers into which all the filth was poured from the houses. Most houses had their floors covered with straw. In this, small bits of food rotted, attracting flies and rats. More
There was far less medical knowledge than there is today.
This does not mean that there was none. As the medieval period wore on, more and more medical knowledge came into Europe from the East. More
Astrology played an important part in medieval medicine.
Ancient astrological documents were translated from Arabic to Latin around the 12th and 13th centuries. These became important in medical practice. More
Very little was known about the human body, and how it worked.
The science of anatomy did not progress much because the Church regarded cutting up dead human bodies as a serious sin. More
Bleeding a patient was very common.
It was felt that having too much blood was bad for you, so doctors often "bled" their patients. This could make them very weak, at a time when they were already ill. More
In villages, most people could not afford to pay for doctors, so they relied on local lore and custom.
These often involved knowing which herbs or plants were good for treating different illnesses and problems. More
In the towns, the apothecary was often used instead of a doctor.
An apothecary would diagnose illnesses and suggest herbal remedies. An apothecary was not officially allowed to operate on a patient, which had to be carried out by a Barber Surgeon, but some did so anyway. The Apothecary’s shop was a medieval version of the modern chemist. However, they also invented and made their own medicines from natural ingredients. More
Monasteries played an important role in caring for the sick.
All major monasteries had monks who often had some simple training in medicine and acted as doctors to the local communities. They also often had a place in which sick people were isolated from others. More
People thought that disease could be caused by foul smells and perfume was very important.
For those that could afford it linen clothes were boiled in scented water and lavender, woodruff or dried roses scattered amongst stored clothes. People would carry small bags of scented herbs to press to their noses if they were in a place where there was illness or bad smells. Strong smelling spices were seen as a protection against the poisonous vapours that were thought to spread the plague. More
In 1347, the Black Death struck.
This was a deadly plague that was carried by rats. It came from central Asia, and spread all over Europe. It hit populations already made weak by several years of famine. It killed millions of people. More
People tried a whole variety of strange ways to try to protect themselves from the plague.
These included sitting next to blazing fires, and keeping windows and doors closed to keep out the wind. Some people known as flagellants believed the plague was God's punishment and travelled about whipping themsleves to beg forgiveness from God. It was believed the plague smells were absorbed through the skin. Therefore doctors would wear masks with sweet smelling herbs such as angelica in the long 'beak' part of the mask. More
The Black Death changed the whole of society in England.
Suddenly peasants were much fewer in number and could ask for higher wages. Many peasants who were tied to their holdings managed to make new agreements with their lords. If their lords would not agree they simply went elsewhere. More
The first eye glasses (spectacles) appeared around 1286. By the 14th century they were available across north-west Europe.
The glasses were formed from two convex shaped glass/crystal stones, each surrounded by a frame with handle. The handles were then connected together by a rivet. Production started in Florence then the Low Countries. Manufacture in England began in the 15th century. Artisans, glassmakers, jewelers, clockmakers, monks and scientists all helped refine their development. More