Medieval Medicine and the use of Humours, Stars, and Common Treatments | Teen Ink

Medieval Medicine and the use of Humours, Stars, and Common Treatments

December 22, 2014
By PhilMoore4-H GOLD, Dover, Delaware
PhilMoore4-H GOLD, Dover, Delaware
13 articles 0 photos 6 comments

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"Be the change you want to see in the world!"

“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.” Paracelsus is quoted as saying this in reference to medicine and doctors. Medical practices were rooted in Greek practices and a major medical idea was created by philosopher Hippocrates. Many ancient doctors used the stars and astrology as a guide for diagnosing patients and performing procedures. This complicated way of doing things led to many common procedures that were intended to cure anything and everything. The lack of certain knowledge about bacterium and infection led to a great social impact that was not for the better of Medieval Europe.  Medicinal practices in the Medieval Ages were dangerous and could be deadly; however, it did lead to a better understanding of medicine and the human body.

The Four Humours

Medieval medicinal practices were rooted in traditional Greek practices. Hippocrates, a Greek philosopher, was considered the "father of Medicine." He described four humors that were to make up the human body. These were yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood. The humours were thought to be controlled by fire, water, earth, and air respectively (Goldiner, 2012). Each humour had its own temper, or related illness, and organ that was affected by the fluid. Each humour also had a specified nature that the sick person could be described as. Yellow bile had a melancholic temper and affected the Gall Bladder. It was controlled by fire and made the patient warm and dry. If the patient was warm and wet, they had a sanguine temper and a head problem. The imbalance of blood was thought to be controlled by fire. An imbalance of phlegm was thought to be caused by water and led to the patient having a phlegmatic temper in their lungs and for them to be cold and wet. Black bile was controlled by the earth and led to an imbalance that caused a cold, dry, melancholic temper in their spleen (Griffiths, 2013). “The body could be purged of excesses of the fluids by bleeding, cupping, and leeching (Goldiner, 2012).”

The Stars and Astrology

Medieval astrologers believed that star movements influenced many things on earth. This ranged from the weather and the growth of crops to the personalities of newborn babies (Medicine, n.d.). The inner workings of the human body were thought to be influenced by the stars. To help keep the star signs orderly and readable, doctors often carried around special almanacs (or calendars) that contained illustrated star charts (Medicine, n.d.). Carrying the charts around allowed them to check the positions of the stars before diagnosing the patient. The almanacs’ illustrations other use was to help explain the complicated astrological ideas to patients. Each diagram was intended to explain how the astrological formations (or star signs) rule over each part of the body. The moon also played a factor in diagnosing a patient because by the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures (Medicine, n.d.). This could be anything; however, it was more likely to be things such as surgery or bleeding.

Common Treatments

Bloodletting (opening a vein) was used as a cure-all. Whatever was wrong with a patient, the doctors thought bloodletting would cure it (Medicine in the Middle Ages, 2014). It was certainly advised by doctors and was a very risky procedure to do. This was because the open wound could lead to infection and if the amount of blood to be bled was miscalculated, it could be bad for the patient. If a patient was believed to have an imbalance of the four humours leeches would be used to restore balance (Health and Medicine in Medieval England, 2014). This was also risky because of the bacterium that is carried by leeches and the amount of blood that can be held by a leech is more than what doctors would bleed out normally. The hole a leech leaves is also incapable of closing because of certain enzymes that leeches have in their saliva that disable blood from clotting for some time. It would have to be wrapped up and kept closed until the saliva was dissipated or the bandages blocked the blood and it dried. That was not the worst treatment that a person could endure.  As a treatment for hemorrhoids, medieval doctors would often use hot irons to burn them (Health and Medicine in Medieval England, 2014). According to the Mayo Clinic, hemorrhoids are “are swollen and inflamed veins in your anus and lower rectum (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2013).” Such treatment would have caused the patient great discomfort, but it would last for less time than having inflamed veins in their abdomen.  However, some medicinal practices could be deadly before the procedure was even done. A medieval anesthetic was based on the juices of the poisonous hemlock plant (Griffiths, 2013). This anesthetic could kill the patient before the loss of blood or bacterial infection ever could.

Impact on Society

Medieval medicinal practices had many impacts on society. Some practices led to deaths, illnesses, and bacterial infections. This was generally from un-sanitized equipment and lack of knowledge of germs. Such a lack of knowledge led to the spread of the Bubonic Plague. The plague led to death of millions of Europeans during the Middle Ages. Medieval medicine did lead to a better understanding of the human body. This was due to the fact that the body was studied to get a better idea of what was inside and how everything worked together. The medieval medicinal practices and practitioners helped along Islamic and Renaissance medicine. The advancements in all three led to the overall advancement of the field of medicine.

The author's comments:

This is just a small piece on old medicine. It is meant to be around the time that Shakespeare was alive. I used the following sources for information:

Medicine in the Middle Ages. (2014, January 1). Retrieved from

Health and Medicine in Medieval England. (2014, January 1). Retrieved from

Griffiths, A. (2013, June 1). Medieval Medicine and Healing Practices in Europe. Retrieved from

Goldiner, S. (2012, January 1). Medicine in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, June 19). Hemorrhoids. Retrieved from

Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine. Retrieved from l/medicine/medievalmedicine.html

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