Sickness & Death in the Medieval World

A monastery pharmacy at a museum in Ravenna, Italy.
A monastery pharmacy at a museum in Ravenna, Italy.
Photo of a monastery pharmacy I visited at a museum in Ravenna, Italy.

One doesn’t often think about one’s appendix unless forced to. I was forced to in November last year when on a business trip to Tucson, Arizona for my day job. This small organ chose that time to rupture, putting me in the hospital for a week. My recovery once I got home took a while longer and gave me the opportunity to read up on appendicitis. I learned that appendicitis will hit 15-20% of people at some point during their life and that surgery for this illness only became available about 130 years ago.

With my interest in history, it occurred to me that many people who died over the centuries probably succumbed to what is now an easily treatable condition. It reminded me of John Julius Norwich’s history of the Normans in Sicily, where he mentioned that it seemed in medieval times that people who were sick were often lucid despite being on their deathbed. I recall being lucid enough to know that the pain I was feeling was worse than childbirth had been.

I wondered how often modern historians and authors of historical fiction forget about how many ways people could have died prior to the development of modern medicine. They often reference childbirth, plague, smallpox, typhoid, and cholera, even rabies and cancer, while forgetting the many small things that might have killed someone, or even just had a debilitating effect.

For example, a character in my novel – a vigorous man in his mid-20’s – is in the historical record as having died of an ear infection. Many children have ear infections when they are young, but I knew no adult who had ear infections. Until it happened to me. Only it wasn’t an inner ear infection such as children get, it was the outer ear. I woke up one morning with a pain in my right ear lobe, and within eight hours my ear had swollen to twice the normal size. The doctor said it was a staph infection and put me on antibiotics which took care of the problem. Suddenly I knew how my character must have died.

There have been recent archaeological studies of ancient latrines (really? couldn’t they have found someplace better?) that show evidence many people two thousand years ago suffered from intestinal parasites. Medical experts say these might not have killed their host, but they certainly would have made life uncomfortable for them.

Lives in medieval times were often short due to illnesses, parasites, and infections that would be easily treated today, to the point that we often forget how life-threatening even a small scratch can become. After my own experiences with appendicitis and a staph infection, my appreciation for my ancestors’ toughness and ability to survive long enough to procreate has grown.

Final Note: Just out today – the third issue of The Byzantine Times magazine. I have an article in it, there is an interview with John Julius Norwich on Byzantine history, and exquisite photos of Byzantine mosaics, among other enjoyable features. Follow this link to read it: http://joom.ag/DmTQ

I’d love to hear what people think of it.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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