How Healthy Were People in Medieval York

In medieval York medicine and health were very important aspects in life. For many peasants that lived in medieval York, disease and poor health were part of their daily life. Medicine was both basic and sometimes useless. Towns and cities were filthy and the knowledge we have of hygiene today was non existent. As the populations of medieval towns such as York increased, hygienic conditions worsened. People lived so close together in both villages and towns it meant that contagious diseases could be out of control very quickly after they first appeared; a perfect example being the Black Death.

As their medical knowledge was limited, despite the efforts of physicians and doctors, medieval Europe did not have an adequate health care system. Antibiotics and other remedies were not invented until the 1800s, so it was almost impossible to cure people. There were many superstitions about health and hygiene as there still is today. People believed for example, that disease was spread by bad odours. They also assumed that diseases of the body resulted from sins of the soul. Many people in medieval times sought relief from their illness and pain by other means such as: meditation, prayer, pilgrimages and other non medical remedies.

Medicine was often risky and people could loose their lives in the process of trying to be healed. Some of the potions used to relieve pain or induce sleep during the surgery were potentially lethal. Surgery was often performed as a last resort however it was known to be successful in some cases of breast cancer, fistula (an opening made into a hollow organ, as the bladder or eyeball, for drainage), haemorrhoids, gangrene, and cataracts, as well as tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck (scrofula).

Early surgery, often done by barbers without anaesthesia, must have been awfully excruciating and dangerous for the patient Bloodletting was a popular method of restoring a patient’s health and “humours. ” One potion consisted of lettuce, gall from a castrated boar, briony, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice (the hemlock juice could easily have caused death). Medical treatment was available mainly to the wealthy, and those living in villages rarely had the help of doctors, who practiced mostly in the cities and courts.

Remedies were often herbal in nature, but they also included: ground earthworms, urine, and animal excrement. Many medieval medical manuscripts contained recipes for remedies that called for hundreds of the rapeutic substances (the idea that every substance in nature held some sort of power). Many treatments were administered by people outside the medical profession including: medicine men, wise women and respected village elders. Coroners’ rolls from the time reveal how people often made sophisticated medical judgments without the aid of medical experts.

Medieval towns did not have systems of sewers or water pipes like Rome had. These towns were probably filthy. Rubbish and human waste was thrown into the streets, houses were made of wood, mud and dung. Rats, lice and fleas flourished in the rushes strewn over the clay floors of people’s houses, where they were often changed only once a year. Medieval people were personally filthy or careless of their health, due to lack of knowledge and facilities, but they had their own version of the Greek’s Programme for Health.

A doctor called: Alderotti advised people to stretch their limbs, wash their face, clean their teeth, exercise and do other things to improve their personal health. Guy de Chauliac (the Pope’s doctor) realised the importance of a good diet, and that a poor diet made people more vulnerable to the plague, which then started to make people realise that their health was really important. During the time of the plague many towns developed quarantine laws, and boarded up the houses of infected people, to help stop the spread of infection and to also expose those who had the plague, so people knew where to avoid.

People with leprosy, were confined to lazar houses (a place for people with infectious diseases). Monasteries developed well thought out systems of public health. They included: fresh running water, ‘lavers’ which were referred to as “wash rooms”, flush ‘reredorters’ which were named as latrines (toilets). Latrines had a system where they had running sewers underneath them, so when the tide came in the human waste was disposed of, out to sea. They also had clean towels and a compulsory bath which they used four times a year.

Noble men and women often had a bath two or three times a year). Towns had bath houses (which were also restaurants and brothels). People realised that a room next to a privy was unhealthy, and towns paid ‘gongfermers’ to clear out the cess pits. Medieval kings then started to pass laws requiring people to keep the streets clean. For villagers in the Middle Ages, the main complaints were about malnutrition (not getting enough food) and diseases caused by storing food over a long period of time. Towns were not clean places.

Water was taken from wells, standpipes or the rivers, hich were often used as the local cesspits. At the beginning of the period (Saxon York) there were no sewage systems; so human waste and rubbish was simply dumped on the streets. Later on these pits were often built below the houses, which then had to be emptied. They believed that people that attended local latrines, were immune to disease due to the smell coming from the toilets. In the middle Ages monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals where they tried to help the sick as best they could.

They also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers (although as time went by there were an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night). In a medieval monastery there was an almonry where food or money was given to the poor, the refectory where the monks ate, the dormitory, infirmary and the cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the poor, an infirmarian looked after the sick and a Hospitaller looked after visitors. Medieval York saw a revolution, in the health and hygiene of the people through this period in history.

They developed a toilet system, where human waste was washed away into the sea when the tide came in; this enabled the waste to be disposed of, this principal could be adapted for use in York. Monasteries helped the sick and the needy, often by giving them a bed for the night, or feeding and treating them well, they provided homes for lepers and peasants that had been refused help by others. Although surgery was often risky and many people did die in the process of the surgeon trying to cure them, many people did survive and this helped the advancement of medical and surgical ideas and practices.

Ideas from the ancient world that had been passed down from century to century helped people to realise how important health and exercise was. Therefore, kings began to issue laws that people had to obey, suggesting they were beginning to take medicine and public health seriously for the good of their kingdom. In general the people of medieval York, would of benefited from all the advancements that took place at this time, therefore they would of enjoyed a healthier and more advantageous life than there predecessors.

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