Surgery in Medieval Times
The Work of a Surgeon in the Middle Ages
© Rachel Bellerby
Dec 1, 2008
Medieval surgeons carried out a variety of medical procedures and, in a world where formal qualifications were unnecessary, varied in competence and experience.
One of the main elements of medieval surgery was the issue of trust. Some surgeons had a university education and studied medicine for years, others set up as barber surgeons, with no experience and little in the way of medical equipment and sanitation.
The Barber Surgeon
Barber surgeons could be found in most medieval towns and, as well as trimming and cutting beards and hair, were also known for surgical procedures. The most common of these was bloodletting, a commonplace procedure which was believed to be essential for good health.
Many of the procedures carried out by the barber surgeon related to violence, such as tending wounds caused by swords, knives or arrows. Because the use of anaesthetics was restricted to those who could pay for it, many people had to suffer the pain of an operation with only a plank of wood to bite on to deflect their attention from the pain, or drinking large quantities of wine to dumb the senses.
The Medieval Surgeon
A good surgeon tended to be known by reputation as much as qualification, and, if successful, would be called upon to attend the families of royalty and nobility. Many of the operations which are carried out in the twenty first century, were also attempted in the Middle Ages.
These included caesarean births, bone setting, dentistry, the removal of bladder stones and even cateract procedures. However, many of these procedures resulted in the death of the patient, either on the operating table, or as a result of a later infection or complication from the operation.
Surgeons would sometimes attend the aftermath of a battle, to ascertain who was still alive and to aid those who had survived the fighting. Signs of life were checked by placing a bowl of water on the patient’s chest to see if it rose and fell with his breathing.
Some surgeons specialised in removing arrow heads from their patient’s bodies. Each time they were successful, a new type of arrow would be invented and the surgeon would need to alter his procedure slightly.
Operations in the Middle Ages
Bloodletting was one of the most common medical procedures of the Middle Ages. It was performed by making a small cut on the inside of the arm, from which the blood was allowed to run into a bowl. Many barber surgeons had street signs showing a blood bowl to advertise their profession and attract new customers.
Bloodletting was sometimes performed by using leeches to suck out blood from the patient, instead of draining the blood from his or her body.
Trepanning was an operation on the skull, which some historians believe was carried out in an attempt to cure mental illness. The procedure involved cutting a hole into the skull. Examinations of skeletons from this era have showed that the skull bones did grow back, proving that some patients survived the operation.
Cauterisation was another risky procedure which involved treating the affected part of a patient’s body with red hot pokers. In some cases, this did actually work by sanitising the injury. Wounds caused by an amputation were sometimes sealed by burning.
Although medieval surgery carried risks, many operations were successful, and this was despite a lack of knowledge about germs and sanitation, something which would not be fully understood for a few more centuries