wm-small-en.jpg (3239 bytes) Diseases In the Middle Ages

The crowded and unhygienic living conditions offered a good possibility for diseases to spread. Rushes, boils, stomach troubles, fever and deficiency diseases were part of people's everyday life. Years of dearth, wars and cold winters increased the distruction of epidemics. Big epidemics decreased trading in Europe and could even make entire cities desolate.

Among the most feared diseases were smallpox, dysentery, measles, leprocy, typhus and especially the plague. In the end of the Middle Ages also spotted fever and syphilis started to spread. For medieval man the fear of death was increased by the fact that the causes of the diseases were unknown; the illnesses were often thought to be caused by spirits, demons or the devil. Horror scenes of death and disease are reflected in medieval art.

The cure of diseases

Medieval medicine was based on the antique doctrines about the cold, humid and warm nature. The four vital humours - mucus, blood, black and yellow bile - also had to be in balance. There was no big development in medicine in the Middle Ages because autopsies which were crucial for the knowledge of anatomy, were forbidden. An ancient doctrine of analogy was applied. According to this doctrine, heart-shaped leaves were good when treating heart diseases, and kidney-shaped leaves worked on kidney diseases. Flowers that resembled eyes helped when treating eye diseases and a red drug stopped bleeding.

The association between dirt and diseases was unknown in the Middle Ages, so hygiene was not paid much attention to. Epidemics were noticed to spread from man to man, so a quarantine system was used to attempt to prevent big epidemics in Europe. Hospitals were founded especially for the cure of the lepers.

Who took care of the sick?

There were doctors in Europe only in the biggest towns. The illnesses of ordinary people were taken care of by popular healers, barbers, monks and priests, many of which were known as skilled woundbinders, splinters and connoisseurs of medical herbs. Monasteries had an exact knowledge of medicinal plants and large herb gardens. It was the duty of the

mistress of the house to take care of the family members' health by preparing medicine from the herbs she had collected and binding wounds.


Leprosy caused wound formation and organ withering and it was a feared disease which afflicted especially poor people living in crowded conditions. The cause of the disease (Mycobacterium leprae- bacterium) was not known, and there was no cure. The time of germination of leprosy was very long, most commonly 6-10 years.The disease was communicated by a close touch of long duration. Nasal secretion contained causes of the disease and clothes polluted by mucus as well as other commonly used objects were also infectious. Since leprosy, however, spread slowly, infections were prevented quite efficiently by closing patients into hospitals. Therefore, the disease diminished essentially all over Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.


Plague came to Europe from Asia in the middle of the 14th century killing at least one third of the population during the first epidemic. Thereafter, plague was a regular visitor in Europe. The suppurate boils, bleedings and hallucinations of the patients stroke horror into people's hearts. The most usual version was bubonic plague which caused dark boil-like spots. Therefore, people started to call the disease by the name Black Death. About half of those who caught this disease, died. Pneumonic plague was a version that spread as a drop infection especially during the cold winters of the North. It brought a quick and certain death.

Plague was transmitted to man from a microbe called Yersinia pestis. It lived in a flea which lived as a parasite in rodents. The disease spread mainly from the black rat, but also from humans. A plant called the plague root (Petasites hybridus) was used as a cure for plague. Its roots were boiled in wine and eaten, and its leaves were wrapped around the infected skin. When hung above the door of a house, it was believed to protect the inhabitants from plague.

AuthorMInna Hautio