Monday, July 14, 2014

Medieval Herbal Medicine and the Treatment of Wounds.

“No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Every time I think of sword wounds, this famous line, spoken by Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, comes to mind. Honestly, I do not believe that Mercutio could have been saved, even in these modern times, his wound was so severe. However, such was not the case with every swordsman in every fight. Some survived, at times with the loss of a limb to show for their troubles; other times with little more than a really cool scar. With that in mind, and the fact that I am writing a scene of a sword wound and the treatment of the same right now, I decided to do a little research.

We all know that Medieval medicine has gotten a bad rap, and that reputation is not based on fantasy. Leeches, bleeding, branding, urine, filth—all things that we associate with doctors of that era, and things that are not necessarily untrue. But there were other options besides dying from infection and/or losing limbs. Healers, often wise-women, used herbs and cleanliness to heal. This was not all the time, of course, but in the country, and where doctors were not readily available (for example, among the poorer classes), the local wise woman was the only choice, and as often as not, the better one.

Now if you were lucky, you got the wise woman who did not believe that clean was a four-letter word; since I am writing a romance, it would not do to have some superstitious, filthy hag treating the injured man. Bear in mind, that I am not a physician in any way at all, and that all the information I write here is general, and gleaned from internet sources, either through websites, or internet friends who are members of SCA. But let’s face it, they likely get their knowledge the same way I did, for if they ever truly get hurt, most of them would be at the E.R., toot-de-suite.

The most important things with wound treatment are cleanliness and immediate treatment. If a wound could be treated quickly, cleaned, and kept clean, the patient stood a much better chance of survival. Castles and cottages were often cold, drafty, damp places. Keeping the patient warm and dry was vitally important. Once the patient’s wound was clean and cleared of all debris, treatment could really begin.

Yarrow was frequently used to stop bleeding. Also called devil’s nettle, thousand leaf, and soldier’s woundwort, this herb has many medicinal uses. First of all, it slows bleeding; the leaves would have been useful in a poultice to this end.  Boil the leaves and drink it in a tea to bring down fever and relieve pain, adding honey for sweetener and also for its antibacterial qualities.  

For broken bones, comfrey leaves could be crushed into a poultice. Comfrey, like many herbs, should be used with caution, and only by a qualified herbalist. I have read many articles, usually on “modern” medical websites, that point to the fact that comfrey can cause liver damage and even death, but then, an overdose of cough medicine can also cause death if left untreated. However, comfrey is also very good at knitting bones and closing wounds due to the fact that it stimulates cell division and reproduction.

One other very important factor in healing is rest. If one cannot sleep, one’s body is taxed even further than by the injury alone. In this instance, chamomile or lavender would probably be used. Both are popular relaxants, allowing the body to drift off to sleep.

I would imagine that most healers would use various herbs in various forms, just as doctors today do not use only one medicine or method necessarily to treat a major wound. Again, I am not a physician, nor a time traveler, just a person who enjoys research. For further information, please speak with your local herbalist. 

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