Sickness and Sin in the Middle Ages: revisiting old writing

Draining a bit of blood to relieve a patient of sickness and sin.Any writer gripped by the bug is prone to storing vast archives of abandoned writing: word documents of half-finished novels, ill-fated short stories and eye-bleedingly dire poetry. In the same way seldom-used words can disappear into the recesses of your mind (like eschatology), these documents are lost to the memory, discarded and forgotten. This is the tale of one document that I felt deserved reviving.

Let’s backtrack a moment. To reach this stage, I was inspired to delve into my written past after musing over my copywriting chum Susan’s article on the wonders of archaic words. Such words have always held a fond place in my heart, and I could quite happily produce a few such lists of my own, but it made me think of one word in particular, concerned with the apocalypse as I have been lately. Rather, it made me think of a time when I used that word. It meant something pertaining to the apocalypse. Something to do with the end of times.

The time when I regularly used the word eschatology was for around three years at university, when I was studying medieval literature. It was a time when I became an expert in the ins and outs of medieval heresy, medicine and politics, and could hold meaningful discussions with some of the most learned scholars in the field (I recall discussing The Da Vinci Code with Malcolm Barber, for example). But, just as I couldn’t recall that word, so I could’t recall most of that massive knowledge of the medieval world I once had.

I had to delve into my old documents to find the word eschatology, which took a viciously expansive quarter-hour chunk out of my busy working day. And I was overjoyed to find it. But moreover I was intrigued with what I had found it in. My old BA dissertation. The topic: Sickness and Sin in the Middle Ages.

I started to reread it and all those strange things I had studied about the Middle Ages came rushing back to me. I remembered the knack I had for picking out strange stories from the time, and the expansive surveys I’d conducted into the periods in question. And two things struck me about this document, which you don’t tend to get from archived fiction writing. One, that at the time of writing this was a serious scholarly article – I had done my research, the arguments I made were kind of relevant. Two, it was moderately fascinating reading. If only for the strange trivia I collected in writing it.

Unless you’re a medieval historian who’s directly studied medicine and heresy in the Middle Ages, much of what this document contains should be new to you. Consider these passages:

The author notes the concept of humours as an explanation for bodily health, but is resolved that their imbalance is caused by evil or poisons, and thus prescribes as cures peculiar remedies ranging from chants and charms to eating boiled badger testicles.


The Third Lateran Council of 1179 included the Office at the Seclusion of a Leper, a grim rite that was little less than a living funeral for the afflicted. Amongst other things, after this ritual was given the leper was forbidden to eat in the company of the healthy, to attend church or even so much as talk to people in tight spaces.


Henry II of England burnt lepers outright, whilst Edward I saw fit to give them a proper Christian funeral and thus buried them alive.

People could learn from this.

It made me sad that this document was left to rot not because I didn’t think it worthwhile but because really what else was I going to do with it? I considered it a piece of writing used to obtain a mark, as opposed to a piece of writing in its own merit. In fact, it is an interesting collection of bizarre beliefs and practices, and a careful discussion of medieval literary attitudes. If any of that interests you, and you’ve got a few spare hours, I’d recommend you read the document. Because that’s what I realised I could now do with it: write a lengthy blog article and publish the whole damned thing on the internet.

So if you want to learn all about how medicine in the medieval world worked, why writers bandied about eschatological claims or what the relationship between heresy and leprosy was, give it a read! And if you don’t want to read the whole thing, I’d suggest at least having a look at the bibliography, because I uncovered some fascinating books in my research (Nebuchadnezzar’s ChildrenThe Wages of Sin, and Marvels, Monsters and Miracles were particular highlights).

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