Past (Ancient; Historical) Medical Knowledge & Techniques

SoundDust

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story here

Surgeons were carrying out complicated skull operations in medieval times, the remains of a body found at an archaeological dig show.

A skull belonging to a 40-year-old peasant man, who lived between 960 and 1100AD, is the firmest evidence yet of cranial surgery, say its discoverers.

The remains, found in Yorkshire, show the man survived an otherwise fatal blow to the head thanks to surgery.

Nearly 700 skeletons were unearthed by English Heritage at a site near Malton.

Complex surgery

Scientists have been examining the remains from the now deserted village of Wharram Percy.

Once a thriving community built on sheep farming, it fell into steep decline after the Black Death and was eventually completely abandoned.

The skull in question, dating back to the 11th century, had been struck a near-fatal blow by a blunt weapon, causing a severe depressed fracture on the left hand side.

Closer examination revealed the victim had been given life-saving surgery called trepanning.

A rectangular area of the scalp, measuring 9cm by 10cm, would have been lifted to allow the depressed bone segments to be carefully removed.

This would have relieved the pressure on the brain.

Roman and Greek writings document the technique of trepanning for treating skull fractures, but there is no mention of it in Anglo-Saxon literature.

Some historians have theorised that western Europe was deprived of such surgical knowledge for centuries after the fall of Alexandria in the 7th century.
 
A

Anonymous

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I heard this stroy on the radio last night.

It just shows how undark the suposed dark ages where.
 

ramonmercado

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Anaesthetics and disinfectants are thought to be a modern medical invention but evidence is coming to light that medieval doctors knew of them too.

Evidence found at the ancient Soutra Hospital site, in Scotland, suggests the medieval Augustine monks also knew how to amputate limbs, fashion surgical instruments, induce birth, stop scurvy and even create hangover cures.

The excavations at Soutra have also unearthed fragments of pottery vessels that were once used for storing medicines such as an analgesic salve made from opium and grease and treatment for parasitic and intestinal worms.

Dressings have also been found, some still with salves or human tissues attached and the scientists have discovered a mixture of Quicklime (calcium oxide) which scientists believe was used as a disinfectant and a deodorant.

Research

The hospital, high in the Lammermuir Hills, near Edinburgh, was dedicated to looking after the poor, travellers and pilgrims as well as the sick and infirm.

Dr Brian Moffat archeo-ethno-pharmocologist and director of investigations for the Soutra Project, studies clumps of seeds from the site.

We are in the unprecedented position to evaluate this system of medicine recipe by recipe - and ask, did all of it - or any of it - work?

Dr Brian Moffat

He said the scientists trawl literature of the period to try and identify remedies the herbs could have been used to create.

They then search the site to find medical waste evidence to support their theories.

He said that, using these methods, they had made a number of extremely significant finds and are regularly turning up new evidence about how ailments were treated during medieval times.

"We reckon we have stumbled upon a means of reconstructing medical practices."

Texts

He said that the methods used were considered controversial by some archaeologists, because they do not find direct evidence of the medicine in use, but their findings were always corroborated by other experts.

When ergot fungus and juniper berry seeds were found at Soutra scientists were intrigued about their use.

Searching the historical texts suggests they were used to help induce birth, despite a ban on men in holy orders assisting in any aspect of childbirth.

"When we looked at the site we found the still-born bodies of malnourished babies nearby so it is impossible not to link them," Dr Moffat said.

We began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy

Dr Brian Moffat

"There was a ban on men in holy orders from interfering in childbirth, so any pregnant woman was left in the hands of an experienced village woman, but this would have been unacceptable to certain powerful people who wanted their wife or daughter to be looked after by physicians."

Another find revealed clumps of watercress lying close to a pile of teeth.

"There was no sign of forcible extractions on the tooth.

"So we searched the waste to see what might have been thrown out alongside the teeth and we found a small mass of watercress.

"We realised that watercress is very rich in vitamin C and we began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy.

"Then we found one of the medieval texts which said loose teeth can be 'fastened or secured' by eating watercress.

"We consulted the World Health Organization who confirmed that a boost of vitamin C would stop teeth falling out from a bout of scurvy."

"They had noticed that scurvy is reversible if they took certain vitamins."

Hemlock

One of the exciting finds was of the abundance of hemlock in the drains. Scientists think the monks had used this as a painkiller before carrying out amputations.

Next to this they found the remains of the heel bone of a man.

Tony Busettil, regus professor of forensic medicine at Edinburgh University who corroborated the Soutra find, said the bone had ridges on it, which indicated that the man had walked on the side of his foot.

"It showed that the person appears to have had a limp so they could have been suffering from some sort of congenital palsy.

"Next to it they found evidence of very strong pain killers."

Dr Moffat said the monks' knowledge of herbs was so great it could be used to influence medicine today.

"You would not bother with strange plants at a monastery unless they were going to be used and these medieval brothers knew what to do. They knew more about plants than anyone alive today," he added.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3745498.stm
 

river_styx

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I wonder how much of it was brought up from the old pagan ways and how much was the modern thinking of the times?




I wouldn't want to use quicklime as a deodorant, but then I'm a soft southern nancy.
 

rjmrjmrjm

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Probably a good mixture of them both. Monastrys after the fall of Rome became the powerhouses of thought and teaching and many of them had extensive librarys which often included 'heathen' and 'pagan' books. Indeed it is only though the monastries aquirences of Arabian books that we have western versions of the Greek and Roman classics today.
 

mossy_sloth

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Coincidently, over the last few days I have been researching the possiblity of drug use to alleviate the pains of childbirth in the Ancient Near East, more specifically, in Palestine. I know the period is different to that mentioned above, but I think it's interesting, particularly in relation to childbirth as there is very little reference to the medical procedures regarding this subject, most likely becuase midwives were women, and women were seldom writers. And if they did produce medical texts, these texts rarely survived (though I can think of a few from later periods..)

Anyway, what I was going to say, was that today I came across an article about cannabis use to alleviate birth pains in 3rd-4th C.CE Israel. Remains of the drug were found on the body of a 14 year old girl, who apparently died during childbirth. Cannabis fibres generally don't survive long, and the only reason these ones were found was because the body was burned, and the ashes of the drug remained.

I would be extremely interested if anyone knows of any good sources (books, journal articles, or ancient sources) regarding birth in the ancient Near East.

Anyway, bit off topic there, sorry about that.
 

mrpoultice

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If this kind of thing floats your boat......

Excavations at Eynsham Abbey 1989-92 (Eynsham oxfordshire)
Archaeobotanical evidence there, found evidence for the Use of Opium Poppy (seeds) Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) which is used today to treat liver complaints, & well as Henbane, which can be used to reduce swelling and inflamation.

No doubt there is much more evidence from other monastic sites in the UK, if anyone cars to look.

Mr P
 

Schwadevivre

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via the Daily Telegraph
Anglo-Saxon cow bile and garlic potion kills MRSA
A thousand-year-old medieval remedy for eye infections which was discovered in a manuscript in the British Library has been found to kill the superbug MRSA.

Anglo-Saxon expert Dr Christina Lee, from the School of English, at Nottingham University, recreated the 10th century potion to see if it really worked as an antibacterial remedy.

The 'eyesalve' recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach).
It seems that some old remedies might well be effective. I look forward to more from the various leech books another example of which is described in this link to the Wellcome Library
 

Ulalume

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I can't speak about the cow bile, but I've used garlic for its infection killing properties many times. It's brilliant (if pungent). Also, it has the benefit of not creating resistance, because it works differently than other antibiotics.

My kids had pink eye recently and I used a rather ancient recipe of chamomille, salt and honey to clear it up within a day. There is value in some of those old remedies, I think.
 

Mythopoeika

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I can't speak about the cow bile, but I've used garlic for its infection killing properties many times. It's brilliant (if pungent). Also, it has the benefit of not creating resistance, because it works differently than other antibiotics.

My kids had pink eye recently and I used a rather ancient recipe of chamomille, salt and honey to clear it up within a day. There is value in some of those old remedies, I think.
Yeah, the cow bile seems to be the ingredient that could safely be abandoned.
Perhaps replace it with a silver solution.
 

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Garlic and silver solution? Isn't that better for keeping supernatural creatures at bay?

More seriously, I'm not sure a silver solution would have an effect on bacteria. As I understand it, they are simply unable to live on silver surfaces due to it's physical properties. Something that would not carry over into a solution.
 

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Along with ancient remedies we get ancient resistance.

Scientists have discovered antibiotic resistance genes in the bacteria of remote tribespeople who have had no contact with the industrialized world or exposure to antibiotic drugs. This discovery suggests that the ability to resist antibiotics was already in the human body long before today's antibiotic drugs were developed. ...

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/292662.php
 
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Anonymous-50446

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I would recommend his book Dark Nature to everyone. I'm sad that I never met him.
Yes, that's a good read. Elephantoms was my favorite, but none of his book are dull. And they are correctly and exhaustively referenced, unlike some purporting to be 'scientific studies'.
 

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Xanatic*

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Yes, but usually only for external use. Honey by creating an extreme environment, to sweet for bacteria to live in.
 

Ghost In The Machine

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Problem with Anglo Saxon leech books, is not everything is translatable - we're not entirely sure how to translate the names of some things like birds and plants, although most of these are known because they sound like words that are known in other, related languages. So you can't always be entirely sure how to translate. I had a quick look at my favourite leech book. Sounds like one the NHS should try though:

"Write this along the arms against a dwarf: [symbols for alpha, omega and the sign of the cross], and crumble celandine into ale...."

[Lacnunga Manuscript, translation, p 219, Pollington's 'Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing']

From the same page, at random, for piles and bum problems:

"... dig around a clump of celandine roots... and sing nine paternosters over them; then, at the ninth, at 'deliver us from evil', pull it up, and shake off the shoot... then immerse them; and let him warm himself by a warm fire..."

A lot of the written down (so Christian) surviving bits of Anglo Saxon magic involve a combination of making a concoction and bits of christianity (presumably in pagan times, the chants were pagan in nature).
 

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Where I grew up we had some odd remedies, and as we spoke dialect that was similar to german, i can only suppose that they had their roots from an Anglo Saxon origin.

One remedy for croup was a mix of butter and vinegar, mixed into an emulsion, and doled out on an apostle spoon (personally I loved the taste) - it seemed to work. Another cure for a cough or cold was an onion, hollowed out, with sugar placed in the cavity and left overnight, with the resultant liquid given to the poorly child next morning - the last one was a red flannel placed around the neck for a sore throat.

I apologise if I've hi-jacked the thread, but it seems that apart from the red flannel, the other two, similar in strangeness to other AngloSaxon cures, rely on substances that might have recognisable properties, like the slight diuretic properties of Taraxacum, and the bacteria in mead.
 

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A 9th century medieval salve seems sufficiently effective against bacterial infections manifesting as biofilms to motivate researchers to continue testing for combinations of ingredients in medieval medical texts.
Medieval Medicine Remedy – Found in 9th Century Bald’s Leechbook – Could Provide New Treatment for Modern Day Infections

To fight antibiotic resistance more antimicrobials are needed to treat bacterial biofilms, which protect an infection from antibiotics.

Using the ‘Balds eyesalve’ medieval mixture containing every day natural ingredients such as garlic, researchers from the University of Warwick have found it was effective against five bacteria that cause modern-day biofilm infections
This proves that future discovery of antibiotics from natural products could be enhanced by studying combinations of ingredients

Antibiotic resistance is an increasing battle for scientists to overcome, as more antimicrobials are urgently needed to treat biofilm-associated infections. However scientists from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick say research into natural antimicrobials could provide candidates to fill the antibiotic discovery gap. ...

Bacteria can live in two ways, as individual planktonic cells or as a multicellular biofilm. Biofilm helps protect bacteria from antibiotics, making them much harder to treat, one such biofilm that is particularly hard to treat is those that infect diabetic foot ulcers.

Researchers at the University of Warwick ... say medieval methods using natural antimicrobials from every day ingredients could help find new answers. ...

FULL STORY: https://scitechdaily.com/medieval-m...vide-new-treatment-for-modern-day-infections/
 

EnolaGaia

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A 9th century medieval salve seems sufficiently effective against bacterial infections manifesting as biofilms to motivate researchers to continue testing for combinations of ingredients in medieval medical texts. ...

This Live Science article provides a more detailed overview of the experimental work and the critical role that the overall / final combination of ingredients played (compared to the individual ingredients).

https://www.sciencealert.com/a-1-00...-could-make-a-comeback-as-a-modern-antiseptic
 

EnolaGaia

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This Scientific American article reviews the rarely-mentioned level of medical knowledge and practices regarding contraception and abortion during the Dark Ages / Middle Ages.
Abortion and Contraception in the Middle Ages

Today, conversations around abortion in modern Christianity tend to take as a given the longstanding moral, religious and legal prohibition of the practice. Stereotypes of medical knowledge in the ancient and medieval worlds sustain the misguided notion that abortive and contraceptive pharmaceuticals and surgeries could not have existed in the premodern past.

This could not be further from the truth. ...

FULL STORY: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/abortion-and-contraception-in-the-middle-ages/
 

WeeScottishLassie

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Anaesthetics and disinfectants are thought to be a modern medical invention but evidence is coming to light that medieval doctors knew of them too.

Evidence found at the ancient Soutra Hospital site, in Scotland, suggests the medieval Augustine monks also knew how to amputate limbs, fashion surgical instruments, induce birth, stop scurvy and even create hangover cures.

The excavations at Soutra have also unearthed fragments of pottery vessels that were once used for storing medicines such as an analgesic salve made from opium and grease and treatment for parasitic and intestinal worms.

Dressings have also been found, some still with salves or human tissues attached and the scientists have discovered a mixture of Quicklime (calcium oxide) which scientists believe was used as a disinfectant and a deodorant.

Research

The hospital, high in the Lammermuir Hills, near Edinburgh, was dedicated to looking after the poor, travellers and pilgrims as well as the sick and infirm.

Dr Brian Moffat archeo-ethno-pharmocologist and director of investigations for the Soutra Project, studies clumps of seeds from the site.

We are in the unprecedented position to evaluate this system of medicine recipe by recipe - and ask, did all of it - or any of it - work?

Dr Brian Moffat

He said the scientists trawl literature of the period to try and identify remedies the herbs could have been used to create.

They then search the site to find medical waste evidence to support their theories.

He said that, using these methods, they had made a number of extremely significant finds and are regularly turning up new evidence about how ailments were treated during medieval times.

"We reckon we have stumbled upon a means of reconstructing medical practices."

Texts

He said that the methods used were considered controversial by some archaeologists, because they do not find direct evidence of the medicine in use, but their findings were always corroborated by other experts.

When ergot fungus and juniper berry seeds were found at Soutra scientists were intrigued about their use.

Searching the historical texts suggests they were used to help induce birth, despite a ban on men in holy orders assisting in any aspect of childbirth.

"When we looked at the site we found the still-born bodies of malnourished babies nearby so it is impossible not to link them," Dr Moffat said.

We began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy

Dr Brian Moffat

"There was a ban on men in holy orders from interfering in childbirth, so any pregnant woman was left in the hands of an experienced village woman, but this would have been unacceptable to certain powerful people who wanted their wife or daughter to be looked after by physicians."

Another find revealed clumps of watercress lying close to a pile of teeth.

"There was no sign of forcible extractions on the tooth.

"So we searched the waste to see what might have been thrown out alongside the teeth and we found a small mass of watercress.

"We realised that watercress is very rich in vitamin C and we began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy.

"Then we found one of the medieval texts which said loose teeth can be 'fastened or secured' by eating watercress.

"We consulted the World Health Organization who confirmed that a boost of vitamin C would stop teeth falling out from a bout of scurvy."

"They had noticed that scurvy is reversible if they took certain vitamins."

Hemlock

One of the exciting finds was of the abundance of hemlock in the drains. Scientists think the monks had used this as a painkiller before carrying out amputations.

Next to this they found the remains of the heel bone of a man.

Tony Busettil, regus professor of forensic medicine at Edinburgh University who corroborated the Soutra find, said the bone had ridges on it, which indicated that the man had walked on the side of his foot.

"It showed that the person appears to have had a limp so they could have been suffering from some sort of congenital palsy.

"Next to it they found evidence of very strong pain killers."

Dr Moffat said the monks' knowledge of herbs was so great it could be used to influence medicine today.

"You would not bother with strange plants at a monastery unless they were going to be used and these medieval brothers knew what to do. They knew more about plants than anyone alive today," he added.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3745498.stm
Wow! This is amazing and so fascinating!
 
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