Until the late 19th Century we did not know what caused disease. There were many different theories from bad air to god’s wrath. People tried their best to treat illness in the best ways they could. This was sometimes successful but often times wouldn’t help or would make things worse. This article will teach you about different periods in the history of medicine and the weirdest cures from the time.
Weird Cures for The Black Death
What was the Black Death?
The Black Death was an infectious disease or plague which spread to many areas of the world especially Europe. It was at its peak between 1346 and 1352. Someone who had plague would be covered in spots and large boils called buboes and would feel very sick and feverish. It was a very deadly disease so many people tried to cure it or prevent themselves from getting it. This led to some interesting methods but the people of the time were informed by how they believed the disease worked.
Want to learn more about infectious diseases and how they are treated now? Check out this video!
How was Black Death Treated?
Preventative Measures – Avoiding ‘Bad Air’
The first thing people were focused on was making sure they didn’t get the plague but how was the Black Death spreading? People at the time did not know how this disease was spreading as they did not know about germs. However, people noticed that being close to people with plague meant you were more likely to get it, and places with fresh air like the countryside were better for not getting plague. People began to believe that ‘bad air’ was the cause of plague, which was closer to the truth than other theories of the time. This belief in ‘bad air’ causing disease was called ‘Miasma Theory’ and brought about some interesting cures for inhaling bad air.
What is Miasma Theory?
A Miasma is a type of air or cloud that causes damage or disease to the body. The Miasma Theory was the idea that ‘bad air’ or miasma would cause diseases such as The Black Death (Plague). Therefore, if you didn’t want to get sick you had to breath in different air that didn’t have plague.
The Weird Part – How did they avoid bad air?
Ways they avoided breathing in ‘bad air’ that caused plague included:
- Carrying around flowers to sniff
- Smelling toilets
- Breathing in onion fumes
Ring Around the Rosie – A Nursery rhyme from the plague
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.”
This fun little nursery rhyme was inspired by the Great Plague that hit London in the 1600’s and refers to preventative measures used to avoid plague. “Ring-a-ring-a-roses”, refers to saying a rosary prayer. This was seen as a way to prevent plague by asking God for forgiveness as some believed plague to be a punishment from God. “A pocket full of posies” refers to the carrying around of flowers to sniff to avoid miasma.
4 Weird Cures for The Black Death
1. The Flagellants
One theory on the cause of the plague was that it was a punishment from God. A particular group of Christians who believed this thought they could prevent themselves from getting plague by punishing themselves first. They would whip themselves publicly to punish themselves so God didn’t feel the need to punish them with plague. This of course did not work.
2. Putting a plucked chicken’s rear under your armpits
People who did survive the plague often did so by treating the buboes that were caused by The Black Death. One of the weirder ways of treating these buboes was to pluck a chicken’s rear and place it on the lumps.
Other people also used snakes that had been cut up to try and pull out the evil from their body, as snakes represented the devil.
3. Powdered Unicorn Horn
Yes, at the time of the Black Death, they believed that unicorns existed and that their horns held magical healing properties. This particular cure was only available to very wealthy people and was most likely actually narwal horn ground up. This powdered narwal horn would have no affect on the plague.
4. Blood Letting
The Four Humours was a theory that the body was controlled by four liquids, one of which was blood. It was thought if you had too much of any of the humours you would get sick. They believed the Black Death could be cured by getting rid of excess blood, but this probably just made people weaker.
4 Weird Medieval Cures
1. Snails were used to treat burns and small cuts.
They let the snails crawl over the burn or cut to treat it.
2. Human fat was used to treat arthritis by being rubbed onto sore joints.
3. If you had swollen eyes you rubbed crabs eyes on your neck
4. If you had a migraine (a headache) you placed a dead mole on your head.
Weird Tudor Cures
When was the Tudor Period?
The Tudor period lasted from 1485 to 1603. It is defined by a period in which England was ran by three recognized Tudor monarchs. When historians talk about the Tudor period they are talking about the British Isles, as the time period refers to the places ruled by those monarchs. There was no Tudor period in Spain, as Spain was not ruled by the Tudors. So, what was medicine like in Tudor Britain?
A bit about Medicine in the Tudor Period
Tudor medicine is defined by herbal remedies. These concoctions usually made by local wise women, apothecaries, and doctors that were the cure for many ailments. Some were weirder than others. The early Tudor period also still had The Four Humours theory as the predominant theory on how the body worked. This belief in balancing the humours to cure illness affected a lot of how they cured diseases. The Tudor and Medieval period overlap and so some of the cures mentioned before would still be used.
4 Weird Tudor Cures
1. Staying completely still for 24 hours.
The Tudor period saw a unique illness that seemingly only affected England. It was called “Sweating Sickness” or later “The English Sweat”. Later cases affected other countries such as Ireland and France but the name stuck. This disease was highly deadly and lasted 24 hours, in just one day people with the English sweat would either recover after 24 hours or die of the disease. The recommended cure was to lie in bed completely still for the entire 24 hours. You were advised not to even eat or drink.
2. If you have a headache, sit under a Willow tree.
What is interesting about this cure is that the painkiller aspirin is made from Willow bark.
3. Hang red curtains over your window to cure Small Pox.
It was thought the red light coming through the curtains would cure you.
4. To cure baldness, rub garlic and vinegar on your scalp.
Weird Victorian Cures
When was the Victorian Period?
The Victorian Period was the years 1837 to 1901, corresponding with the reign of Queen Victoria of England. So, What was medicine like in Britain in the Victorian period?
A bit about Medicine in the Victorian Period
Two major developments in medicine changed the way disease was cured in the Victorian period. In 1858 The Four Humours Theory was disproved, therefore diseases were no longer treated to re-balance the humours. Between the 1850’s and the end of the century, Miasma Theory was disproven and replaced with Germ Theory. The theory that has now been proven correct that disease is caused by germs. These were massive changes especially as the Four Humours theory had been the leading theory for over 2000 years.
However, people still didn’t know everything about how disease should be treated so there were still weird cures at this time.
4 Weird Victorian Cures
1. Doctors recommended smoking cigarettes to cure asthma.
We now know that cigarettes are really bad for your body, especially your lungs but Victorians thought that smoking would help cure the lungs.
2. To prevent getting Cholera, stay calm.
Being afraid of Cholera was meant to make you more likely to get it.
3. Arsenic to treat anemia.
Anemia is a deficiency disease caused by a lack of iron in the diet. Arsenic is a poison that can kill you if ingested but they thought it might help.
4. Put your child’s head in a hole to cure Whooping Cough
Whooping Cough was thought to be cured by taking your child to a field at sunset and placing their head in a hole.
4 More Weird Medical Cures from the Past!
1. Placing an onion under your window when you are sick.
It was believed, as late as 1918 during the Spanish Flu that placing an onion under your windowsill would absorb the illness from your body. This is due to the fact that onions change their appearance when left out to the open air, they actually do absorb germs if left out. This doesn’t remove germs from the body, however.
2. Curing malaria with a magic word! Abracadabra!
In the 3rd Century BCE a Roman physician claimed to be able to cure malaria. You would write the word “Abracadabra” on a piece of paper, then you would write it again below getting rid of one letter from the end of the word each time. Eventually, you had a triangle of letters with just ‘A’ at the bottom. This piece of paper was tied around your neck and worn for 9 days. After 9 days you placed the scroll in a river that was headed East. This was his suggested cure for malaria.
This is also the first ever recorded use of Abracadabra as a magic word!
3. Give your warts to a tree
It was believed if you had warts you could prick one of the warts with a needle, then stick that needle in a tree and the tree would get all of your warts.
4. Touch a king!
Kings were believed to be blessed by God with the ‘Divine right to rule’, therefore it was believed that touching the king would be enough to cure your ailment.
Did some weird cures work?
It is easy to laugh at the history of medicine as we now know much better how disease works and how we can prevent and cure it. However, some of the cures invented in the past really worked even if they are a little bit strange. Some of these cures worked for a very different reason than was believed.
A great example of this is the treatment used by Anglo Saxons for curing an enlarged spleen. They placed a hot iron out of the fire into a bath of wine or vinegar and got the patient to drink it. They did not know this but an enlarged spleen can be caused by anemia, a deficiency of Iron. The hot iron being placed in the wine or vinegar was enough to treat the disease. Even though they didn’t know it, they were curing the enlarged spleen with the iron not the wine or the heat.
There have been many weird, and often ineffective cures throughout history. It is easy to think that people back then were silly to try them. However, lots of people tried their very best to cure disease the best way they knew and sometimes they helped people. The best thing about the history of medicine is learning all the ways people helped the sick or injured.
Did you know? People have been helping people with broken bones and placing splints on them to heal the bone correctly since prehistoric times. Historians only know this as there are bones that have fully healed breaks dating back to the stone age!
It’s a relief to know that we are always learning more about how the human body works and we can cure so many illnesses now. Also, it’s a relief we don’t have to put dead moles on our heads when they hurt anymore.