Explore the miseries of medieval medicine at Milton Chantry

PUBLISHED: 11:21 10 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 10 April 2015

Russell Palme

Russell Palme


Monk Russell Palmer will talk about leeches, bile and bone saws

EVEN the NHS’s most bitter detractors will admit that it has its good points.

No-one tries to use leeches to suck your blood, no-one drills a hole in your skull and no-one tries to saw off your arm. Well, only on a very bad day.

But take a trip back to medieval times and such, ahem, medical procedures were normal.

Historical entertainer and re-enactor Russell Palmer will be teaching children and adults all about the miseries of medieval medicine at a special day at Milton Chantry in Gravesend next month.

The heritage centre and former chapel will become a scene of shocking surgery and terrifying treatment as Mr Palmer, dressed as a monk, demonstrates how illnesses and injuries were treated in medieval times.

Yes, a monk, not a doctor. “The monks did everything,” Mr Palmer explained.

“Doctors were one of the lowest-paid professions, and they weren’t really trusted. Most of their patients would probably die anyway, which didn’t do a lot for your business.”

People believed that illness was a result of evil behaviour or lack of holiness. If you were ill, your first remedy would be to pray.

“Surgery wasn’t allowed, because people thought that was sticking your hands into someone’s soul. Everything that was done was on the outside – with no drugs or anaesthetics,” Mr Palmer explained.

“If someone had a severe headache, they would drill a hole in their skull. Or you might saw off limbs with a bone saw.

“In battle, they would have had contingents of monks dragging people off the field – but they would always go for the people that looked the richest.”

It was the Arabic civilisation, in fact, which helped the western world gain an understanding of anatomy.

“A lot of what westerners learned came from the Muslims, when they went over in the Crusades,” Mr Palmer explained.

“The Muslims had fantastic diagrams of what was in the human body. We didn’t even know blood flowed all the way around.

“Things like cancers and heart attacks wouldn’t have been known about. You would look at the colour and aroma of someone’s urine, and even taste it, to try to diagnose what was wrong.”

However, trial and error helped people discover what worked, and many medieval remedies have more of a scientific basis than you might think.

“Leeches were used to suck the blood, and suck away the evil. Even if you weren’t ill, you would regularly have leechcraft,” Mr Palmer said.

“But these days they do use them in hospitals, for example for veterans who have lost limbs, as they will encourage new growth of blood vessels.

“They also understood that maggots would eat dead skin, so by putting maggots on a wound you would get rid of the dead skin.

“Honey would also have been put on a wound, and it is one of the best antiseptics.”

Poor hygiene did much to encourage the spread of disease – especially the prevalence of nits, lice and fleas.

The most notable consequence of this was the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people between 1346 and 1353, decimating the European population by between 30 and 60 per cent.

“The plague was spread by fleas on rats biting people. People were covered in fleas and lice,” Mr Palmer added.

“If you were living in an area where plague was rife, the chances were you would die. A few people caught plague and survived, but we lost millions of people.”

No wonder people were considered old by the time they were 40.

“The mortality rate for infants was so high that people didn’t really expect babies to live, any more than they expected the woman to live through childbirth,” Mr Palmer said.

“No matter how old you were, every corner you turned there was a disease waiting to kill you, or a war waiting to kill you.”

Mr Palmer will be talking about all this and more at the event at Milton Chantry, which runs from noon until 5pm on Sunday.

“I’ll be teaching the kids how to test urine, and there’ll be some leechcraft and some removing of limbs,” Mr Palmer said.

“I’ll have some of my surgery tools with me, including a knife and a bone saw - all dirty and black of course.”

(Note to parents: there will be no actual surgery, actual urine, actual leeches or actual removing of limbs.)

“It’s all going to be very light-hearted and funny,” Mr Palmer added.

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