I am intrigued with how people in Medieval Europe viewed illness and cures of same. Their methods were quite unusual, based on erroneous beliefs about our world and its scientific principles. There were so many false notions at the time that a physician was often considered a powerful agent of magic.
In no particular order, I’ll go through some of their beliefs: washing, or bathing, is harmful to aching teeth; cutting a beard is a cure for sore eyes; the milk of a lioness is specific for certain ailments. To remove warts, smear them with horse’s blood; for a toothache, mix salt, oil, pepper and a little garlic and bind the mixture on the pulse and leave it overnight; and finally (this is the one that I find amusing) to cure insomnia, induce a louse captured on the patient’s head to crawl into a hollow bone, seal the bone, and hang it around the patient’s neck.
Belief in demons as a cause of disease was extremely prevalent. Diseases occurred when demons penetrated a person’s body. A rather unkind way to get a demon to leave a sick person’s body was to give her news that her friend had died suddenly. Also, there was a demon known as the “neck twister” who attacked children. Demons made of fire and hail pervaded moon-shadows and would cause moonstruck young people to suffer chills and fever.
Angels were believed to also bear a share of the responsibility for death and disease. Certain epidemic diseases, such as measles, were transmitted by the angels who were especially appointed to that function.
Medieval Europeans also believed strongly in spells, charms, and incantations. The variety of these magical words was infinite. Charms typically would include the names of angels, patriarchs, matriarchs, the sun, the moon, the name of God, etc. It was customary to repeat these incantations a certain number of times or on several succeeding days, such as 3, 7, or 9. There was a belief that a name written on an apple and consumed on three consecutive days was guaranteed to heal fevers. Names could be written on eggs or cheese or inscribed on a leaf and dissolved in water, which was consumed.
What was bad for a demon was good for a human; therefore, the more revolting a potion tasted, the better it was for the patient (we have remnants of this belief here with us now). There was the abhorrent practice of consuming human and animal urine and feces. These substances were applied to the body externally as well. Human spittle, especially from a person who had gone without food for a while, was considered a prime cure for eye ailments. Additionally, reptiles and vermin of all sorts were highly regarded for medicinal purposes and were frequently taken internally in powder form.
The list of wacky beliefs that were prevalent at that time goes on and on. What I’ve tried to do as I study these practices is to determine if there are any remains of these beliefs in our society today. For the most part, I have not found many connections; however, there is much I do not know and my intuition tells me that these old beliefs live with us still. For more information on the topic of magic and superstition in Medieval Europe, read the fascinating book, Jewish Magic and Superstition by Joshua Trachtenburg.