Back to Research Topics

Medicine in England.

1066 onward......

In the period before the Norman Invasion of 1066, medicine was provided in the home by members of the family who had handed knowledge down from the previous generation and by more experienced people in the village or town. Much of this was herbal knowledge and this seems to have been handed on but discreetly till the present day. The list of the plants in a garden in the 1330’s would agree with the list of those in my garden of the 1990’s except they did not grow potatoes (See End Note). In any case they could not afford a Doctor’s fee and the Monasteries were not very charitable unless you had funds. 

Doctor 14th century. Via French < Latin, "teacher" <doct-, past participle of docere "teach"]

In Early medieval Europe, religious groups established hospitals and infirmaries in monasteries and later developed charitable institutions designed to care for the victims of vast epidemics of bubonic plague, leprosy, smallpox, and other diseases that swept Europe during the Middle Ages. The church taught that God sent illness, and that repenting would cure all evils. Many people at the time believed that pilgrimage would cure them. In the Old and New Testaments, disease is often a punishment for individuals who transgress God's law; consequently, Christ becomes the physician who can cure both spiritual and physical diseases. While Christ was thought to be the perfect physician, his followers also gain acclaim as healers and curers. "The apostle Luke, one of the four evangelists and author also of the Acts of the Apostles, is referred to by Paul as 'the beloved physician' (Colossians. 4:14)". The image of Christ as the perfect doctor finds a permanent place in Christian thought with the writings of Saint Ambrose (339-97 A.D.), Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), and Boethuis (480-524 A.D.). The Benedictines were especially active in this work, collecting and studying ancient medical texts in their library at Monte Cassino near Salerno, Italy. St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the order, obligated its members to study the sciences, especially medicine. The abbot of Monte Cassino, Bertharius, was himself a famous physician. During the 9th and 10th centuries Salerno became Europe’s centre for medical care and education and was the site of the first Western school of medicine.

1066-87           William I (The Conqueror) an illegitimate son of Duke Robert the Devil.

1087-1100       William II                    son of William I

By the 12th century other medical schools were established at the universities of Bologna and Padua in Italy, the University of Paris in France, and Oxford University in England.

1100-35           Henry I                        son of William I

1117    Lectures held at Oxford.

1135-53           Stephen                       grandson of William II

1153-89           Henry II                      son of Matilda (daughter of Henry I)

Late 12th century the expulsion of foreigners from the University of Paris caused many English scholars to return from France and settle in Oxford. The University of Paris had four faculties: theology, medicine, canon law, and arts.

Soutra Hospital site, in Scotland granted a charter by King Malcolm IV in 1164. Augustine monks evidence of amputation of limbs,  induced birth using ergot fungus and juniper berry seeds, stop scurvy, medieval texts said loose teeth can be 'fastened or secured' by eating watercress. An analgesic salve made from opium and grease. Used Quicklime (calcium oxide) as a disinfectant and a deodorant. Hemlock used as painkiller before amputation, also black henbane, and opium poppy.

1189-99           Richard I                     son of Henry II

1199-1216       John                             son of Henry II

Although most Hospitals and training centre’s for the study of medicine (like that of Oxford and Salerno) came under the control of the Church and were attached  to religious institutions; the practice of medicine and surgery on the part of ecclesiastics was discouraged by the popes and church councils of the twelfth century. It culminated in the decree of Pope Innocent III in 1215, which forbade the participation of the higher clergy in any operation involving the shedding of blood (Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine).  Because of the length training necessary there was a relatively scanty supply of educated lay physicians and surgeons, and finally the pride and inertia of the lay physicians themselves; all these combined to relegate surgery in the thirteenth century to the hands of a class of ignorant and unconscionable empirics, whose rash activity shed a baleful light upon the art of surgery itself. As a natural result the practice of this art drifted into an impasse, from which the organisation of the barber-surgeons seemed the only logical means of escape.

(Training to be a University Qualified physician the student had to spend three or four years studying grammar, logic, argument and public speaking. Then another three years would be spent on arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This gave the student his Master's degree at the end of seven years. Then, and only then, could he go on to study medicine. This course could take another seven to ten years, so the fully university-trained doctor would be at least thirty before he finished his studies and was let loose on the public).

1216-72           Henry III                     son of John

1220s the friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, arrived in England, improving the quality of preaching and becoming the leading scholars in the universities.

Gilbertus Anglicus wrote a medical thesis around 1230. Although English he lived and worked most of his life abroad studied at the School of Salernum. The charms and popular specifics of Gilbert are often introduced with a sort of apology, implying his slight belief in their efficacy. The condition of the urine is studied with great diligence; gives two recipes for  mediaeval anaesthesia; mallow, crowsfoot and nasturtium  seeds used in treatment of fractures; small-pox is said by him  to have made its first appearance in England in 1241; egg-albumen  used as a wound dressing on clean linen cloth. Wounds of the penis are curable, and if the wound is transverse and divides the nerve, they are likewise painless. Sprains of the ankle are to be treated by placing the joint immediately in very cold water, and the joint is to be kept thus refrigerated until it even becomes numb (stupefactionem); after which stupes of salt water and urine are to be applied, followed by a plaster of galbanum, opoponax, the apostolicon. Dislocations of the ankle, after reduction of proper manipulation, should be bound with suitable splints. If of a less severe character, the dislocation may be dressed with stupes of canabina (Indian hemp), urine and salt water, which greatly mitigate the pain and swelling - fistula lachrymalis and fistulae of the jaw receive special attention, the fistula is dilated by a tent of alder-pith, mandragora, briony or gentian, the lining membrane destroyed by an ointment of quick-lime or even the actual cautery, and the wound then dressed with egg-albumen followed by the unguentum viride. Necrosed bone is to be removed, if necessary, by deep incisions, and decayed teeth are to be extracted - one ointment mentioned is Dyaceraseos (a mixture of cherry juice, honey, cinnamon, mastic and scammony) the active ingredient of very many of the formulae used is the root called hermodactyl, believed by botanists to be the  colchicum autumnale.

Of Eyes:

"When we see a man with large eyes, we argue that he is indolent."

"If his eyes are deeply situated in his head, we say that he is crafty and a deceiver."

"If his eyes are prominent, we say that he is immodest, loquacious and stupid."

"He whose eyes are mobile and sharp is a deceiver, crafty and a thief."

"He whose eyes are large and tremulous is lazy and a braggart (spaciosus?), and fond of women."

Actual diseases of the eye ophthalmia, pannus (including ungula, egilops and cataract), tumors of the conjunctiva, itching of the eyes, lachrymation, cancer, diseases of the cornea and uvea, diseases of the eyelids, lachrymal fistula and entropion. The treatment consists generally in ointments and collyria, but in fistula lachrymalis incision and tents of alder-pith, mandragora (malum terrae), briony, gentian, etc., are recommended, and entropion is referred directly to the surgeon.  

An elaborate discussion of the physiology of generation and the phenomena of impotence is followed by a collection of remedies for the condition, of which the best that can be said is that they are probably no less effective than most of the modern drugs recommended for the same purpose. Concerning a function over which so many fond superstitions still linger in the public mind, we may, perhaps, charitably forgive Gilbert for the introduction of an empirical remedy for sterility, which, he assures us, he has often tried and with invariable success, and which enjoys the double advantage of applicability to either sex.  

"Let a man, twenty years of age or more, before the third hour of the vigil of St. John the Baptist, pull up by the roots a specimen of consolida major (comfrey) and another of consolida minor (healall), repeating thrice the Lord's prayer (oratio dominica ). Let him speak to no one while either going or returning, say nothing whatever, but in deep silence let him extract the juice from the herbs and with this juice write on as many cards as may be required the following charm:

"Dixit dominus crescite.  [symbol: dagger].  Uthihoth.  [symbol:dagger].  multiplicamini.  [symbol: dagger].  thahechay.  [symbol:dagger].  et replete terram.  [symbol: dagger].  amath.

"If a man wears about his neck a card inscribed with these identical words written in this juice, he will beget a male. Conversely, if a woman, she will conceive a female".

Gilbert, however, cautions the bearer of this potent charm of the possible dangers of satyriasis incurred thereby, and offers suitable remedies for so alarming a condition.

Diabetes is defined as "An immoderate passage or attraction of urine from the liver to the kidneys and its passage through the kidneys, as the result of a warm or dry distemperature of these organs." The idea of some association of the liver and kidneys in the production of diabetes is at least as old as the eleventh century, and Gilbert's definition of the disease is undoubtedly borrowed from the "Practica" of John Platearius (A.D. 1075), of the school of Salernum. The symptoms, continual thirst, dryness of the mouth, emaciation, in spite of an inordinate appetite, frequent and profuse urination, are correctly given, but no knowledge of the presence of sugar in the urine is indicated.  

He tells us that some old women know how to produce and remove goitrous swellings by means of certain suitable herbs known to them.

He gives a prescription consisting of a long list of ingredients, including burnt sponge, saponaria, the milk of a sow raising her first litter, with numerous simple herbs.

NOTE. The introduction of iodine, in the form of burnt sponge, into the treatment of goitre.

Gilbert tells us that pouring metallic mercury into the ear produces the most distressing symptoms, severe pain, delirium, convulsions, epilepsy, apoplexy and, if the metal penetrates to the brain, ultimate death.

For Feet:

Rubbed briskly with salt and vinegar and then anointed with an ointment of nettle-juice (urtica) and mutton-fat, or with a mixture of garlic, soap and oil. If badly swollen, they should be bathed, before inunction, with a decoction of elder-bark and other emollients.

For nausea he recommends the juice of acid pomegranates, lemons, etc., or a decoction of parsley or sweet cicely (cerfolium).

Roger Bacon.

Roger Bacon (1214?-1294). English Scholastic philosopher and scientist, one of the most influential teachers of the 13th century. Born in Ilchester, Somersetshire, Bacon was educated at the universities of Oxford and Paris. He remained in Paris after completing his studies and taught for a time at the University of Paris. Soon after his return to England in about 1251, he entered the religious order of the Franciscans and settled at Oxford. He carried on active studies and did experimental research, mainly in alchemy, optics, and astronomy. Bacon undertook research in optics and refraction and was the first scholar to suggest that medicine should rely on remedies provided by chemistry. Bacon, often regarded as an original thinker and pioneer in experimental science, was strongly influenced by the authority of Greek and Arabic medicine. Bacon's revolutionary ideas about the study of science caused his condemnation by the Franciscans for his heretical views. In 1278 the general of the Franciscan order, Girolamo Masci, later Pope Nicholas IV, forbade the reading of Bacon's books and had Bacon arrested. After ten years in prison, he was released and allowed to return to Oxford. (Bacon is quoted as writing about his time in a small cell in Paris, "...for my superiors and brothers, disciplining me with hunger, kept me under close guard and would not permit anyone to come to me, fearing that my writings would be divulged to others [rather] than to the chief pontiff and themselves," and that they treated him with "unspeakable violence" and "for ten years had been exiled from former University fame.")  

1272-1307       Edward I                     son of Henry III

In the 13th century, medical licensure by examination was endorsed. Only those who were licensed could practice.  

1307-27           Edward II                   son of Edward I

The barbers - surgeons of London are noticed in 1308, and they received their charter from Edward IV in 1462. Apprentices were trained into the profession by the Master Barber-surgeons and after 7 years became a journeyman. They did not attend a medical training school. ………………………………………………….

The move of the popes from Rome to Avignon in France (1309-1376) and the Great Schism (1378-1417), in which rival popes opposed one another, caused a loss of English respect for the papacy. Statutes of Provisors (1351, 1390) limited the pope's ability to appoint to church offices in England, and the Statutes of Praemunire (1353, 1393) prevented church courts from enforcing such appointments.

  1327-77           Edward III                  son of Edward II

1377-99           Richard II                   son of the Black Prince

Geoffrey Chaucer (1342 - 1400) Canterbury Tales.

"There was a Medical Practitioner:
Nowhere a better expositioner
On points of medicine and pathology.
For he was grounded in astrology;
Treating his patients with most modern physic
Dependent on his skill in natural magic;
He knew which times would be the most propitious
For all his cures to be most expeditious.
He knew the cause of every malady,
If it was hot or cold or moist or dry
And where its seat and what its composition:
You'd nowhere find a more adept physician.
And when he knew the cause of the disease
He'd give the patient fitting remedies.
He'd several chemists under his command
Who made sure all his treatments were to hand.
Reciprocally, both parties made their pile
And had done so for quite a longish while.
Old eminent authorities he knew,
Some Greek, some Roman, some Arabian too.
He'd read both Aesculapius the Greek
And Dioscorides, whose drug critique
Was current still. Ephesian Rufus, too,
Hippocrates and Haly, all he knew.
Galen, Serapion and Rhazes, all
Their textbooks he could instantly recall.
Likewise with Avicenna, Averoes,
Damascan John and Constantine, and those
Like Bernard, John of Gaddesden, (just dead
And gone), and Gilbert; every one he'd read.
He was abstemious in what he ate;
Though this seemed little, it was adequate
And most nutritious and digestible.
He never bothered much about the Bible.
Of blue and scarlet cloth his cloak was made
With silken lining of a different shade.
But yet in spending money he seemed meagre,
To keep the fees he earned he seemed most eager;
For gold's a sovereign tonic; so, in short,
Great stores of gold were what he chiefly sought.'

1399-1413                   Henry IV                     son of John of Gaunt

1413-22                       Henry V                      son of Henry IV

1422-61, 1470-71        Henry VI                     son of Henry V

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 scattered the Greek scholars, with their precious manuscripts, all over Europe.

 1461-70, 1471-83        Edward IV                  son of Richard, Duke of York

1483                            Edward V                   son of Edward IV

1483-85                       Richard III                  brother of Edward IV

1485-1509                   Henry VII                   son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond

1509-47                       Henry VIII                  son of Henry VII

Church of England, with Henry as supreme head, separate from Rome but otherwise Catholic. Dissolution of the monasteries.

1547-53                       Edward VI                  son of Henry VIII died from consumption at the age of 16.  

The English church became Protestant. Parliament's Acts of Uniformity enforced the Book of Common Prayer.

1553-58                       Mary I                         daughter of Henry VIII

Mary restored the Roman Catholic church and married her cousin, Philip II of Spain. Her burning of almost 300 Protestants made the people hate her and Rome.

1558-1603                   Elizabeth                     daughter of Henry VIII  

In 1559 Elizabeth settled the church on a moderate Protestant course.

1603-25                       James I                    great-grandson of Margaret (daughter of Henry VII)

Puritans, or extreme Protestants, who had already been restive under Elizabeth, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Church of England, which they felt was still too Catholic.

1625-49                       Charles I                      son of James I  (He insisted on the concept of “monarchy by divine right”.)

The measures by Bishop Laud and the Court of Star Chamber to restrain the Puritan press and pulpit, and the prosecution of Puritan leaders in 1637, led to an outcry against prerogative courts. Charles's attempts in 1637 to impose English-style worship in Scotland led to a rebellion, and eventual execution of King Charles.

1635 Sir Thomas Browne, the physician - reduction of worldly phenomena to symbols of mystical truth in Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor).

The Commonwealth.

1649-58           Oliver Cromwell

1652                Culpepper – The English Physician

1653                Culpepper – the Complete Herbal

After a Royalist uprising in 1655, Cromwell divided England into 11 military districts commanded by major generals. This, more than anything except the killing of Charles I, turned people against Cromwell and taught them to hate Puritans and standing armies.

1658-60           Richard Cromwell - Not respected by the people or the army.  

House of Stuart (restored)

1660-85           Charles II                    son of Charles I

Parliament restored bishops to the church and expelled Dissenters (Protestants who did not conform to the Church of England), restricting their worship and political activity. In 1673 the Test Act removed Roman Catholics from the royal government.

In 1665 the last outbreak of bubonic plague occurred.

End Note:

Herbs I had in my own garden (the House was built in 1814).


Hawthorn – loss of cardiac function, feelings of congestions and oppression in the heart region, increasing blood flow to the heart muscles and restoring normal heart beat.

Juniper – cystitis, helps relieve fluid retention, chronic arthritis, gout and rheumatic conditions. Can also use Cooch grass root for cystitis – made some tea with root for Cisse Roberts and Chris her husband, a keen gardener never forgave me. She would only let him dig up cooch grass when she wanted some more root for the tea. She had suffered for about ten years and within a fortnight no problem.

Rowan – (to keep away witches).

Ash – (to keep away witches).

Elder (to keep away witches) – sore throats and coughs also rub on young buds to charm warts away.

Broom  lovely yellow blossom - dropsy.

Blackthorn - sloes for sloe gin.

Buddleia - butterfly bush.

Yew - treating ovarian and other cancers (the needles) but very dangerous.

Foxglove - in hedge - Heart medicine strengthen the force of contraction and, at the same time, slow the beat so that the period of relaxation between beats is lengthened. The heart muscle thus obtains more rest even though it is working harder.

Old Man’s Beard - in hedge resin is made into a tincture. This preparation is then taken and has a purgative effect.

Nightshade - in hedge narcotic, diuretic, sedative, mydriatic, anti­spasmodic. Eye diseases and is used as a pain-relieving lotion to treat neuralgia, gout, rheumatism and sciatica also used as an anaesthetic in medicine.

Monks Hood in hedge - liniment of Aconite applied locally to the skin to relieve the pain of neuralgia, lumbago and rheumatism - tincture used with success to prevent cardiac failure.

Near the compost heap:

Nettle bed - Soup for spring blood cleansing - used to treat eczema and skin conditions, to stop bleeding, hay fever, arthritis, anemia.

Dandelions near compost heap – leaves for salads and spring blood cleansing.

Comfrey - increases the healing of wounds. Externally used for rashes, wounds, inflammation and skin problems. Internally, comfrey helping to cure ulcers and colitis.

Fennel - flatulence, colic, stimulate the appetite and digestion, diuretic and anti-inflammatory, bronchitis and coughs, gargle for sore throats. Fennel increases breast-milk production and the herb is used as an eye wash for sore eyes and conjunctivitis.

Black Currant - juice is excellent in febrile (fever) diseases and can be made to an extract which is good for sore throats, the leaves make a tea which is cleansing. A decoction of the bark used against, oedema and haemorrhoids.

Raspberry - Tea made with the young fresh leaves but dried can be used for morning sickness, and throughout pregnancy – helps with easy birth. Raspberry wine can also help with birth and increasing virility among older men.

Rhubarb -  Rhubarb pie -  Laxative, eases stomach pain, antibacterial.

Eucalyptus – colds and fevers – I planted this in 1952.

Herb Bed – near the Kitchen:

"Apple" mint - mint sauce with lamb.

Basil culinary reduce blood sugar levels, prevents peptic ulcers, hypertension, colitis and asthma. Basil leaves are used on itching skin, insect biting and skin infections.
Bay -  culinary  - wasp and bee stings.

Chamomile - Chamomile tea.

Cat Mint - for the cat.

Feverfew - Migraine leaves eaten between bread as a sandwich – very bitter

Garlic- culinary - a digestive stimulant, diuretic, and anti-spasmodic, reduces cholesterol, high blood pressure and lower blood sugar levels, Antibiotic, expels worms.

Hyssop – Colds, Coughs and Asthma.

Lavender - keep moths of clothes -cure headaches, stress, relieves muscle spasms, antidepressant, antiseptic and antibacterial, stimulates blood flow, rheumatism.

Lemon Balm - culinary - heart problems, tranquilizer, nervous spasms, colics, heart spasms, is good for colds, flu and fevers, psychiatric problems, dystonia, anti-histamine, eczema, headaches, cold sores.
Lily of the Valley - fragrance.

Marigold - aid digestion, increase sweating  and menstruation. As a steam clears the sinuses and helps relieve laryngitis, flatulence and stimulates the flow of bile. Strongly antiseptic, good for cuts and wounds, treats coughs, tonsillitis, bronchitis and asthma. The diluted oil can be applied to toothache or painful joints.

Mistletoe - Sterility Tranquilizer, reduces pain, controls blood pressure inhibit tumours (Growing on apple tree).

Parsley – culinary - flatulence, cystitis and rheumatic conditions. promoter of menstruation, helpful in stimulating a delayed period.

Penny royal – culinary - 'Drank with wine, it is good for venomous bites, and applied to the nostrils with vinegar revives those who faint and swoon. Dried and burnt, it strengthens the gums, helps the gout, if applied of itself to the place until it is red, and applied in a plaster, it takes away spots or marks on the face; applied with salt, it profits those that are splenetic, or liver grown.... The green herb bruised and put into vinegar, cleanses foul ulcers and takes away the marks of bruises and blows about the eyes, and burns in the face, and the leprosy, if drank and applied outwardly.... One spoonful of the juice sweetened with sugar-candy is a cure for hooping-cough.'  Culpepper.

Rosemary - culinary - aids circulation, reduce headaches, anti-bacterial and fungal properties, stimulates digestion, liver, the intestinal tract, and the gallbladder. Used as antiseptic gargles  for sore throats , gum problems  and canker sores , a tonic.

Rue stimulate menstrual bleeding, induce abortion, strengthen the eyesight, alleviates varicose veins, hysteria, epilepsy, vertigo, colic, intestinal worms, poisoning  and eye problems.

Sage – culinary - cold germ and flu fighter, reduce sweating sore throats, poor digestion and irregular periods.

Thorn Apple - Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), created an anaesthetic compound called mafutsusan from six traditional plant-based drugs, including aconite and the datura (see Thorn Apple). In 1805 Hanaoka used this compound while extracting a breast tumour in the world's first recorded successful operation under anaesthetic; he later used it for other operations, developing techniques for bladder stone removal and amputation.

Thyme culinary contain thymol, taken as an infusion or syrup to treat flu and colds, sore throats, coughs, whooping cough, chest infections, and bronchitis.

Welsh Onion culinary as per garlic.

Back to Research Topics