Just as we do today, people in ancient and medieval times worried about their health and what they might do to ward off sickness, or alleviate symptoms if they did fall ill. Here, we reveal some of the most unusual remedies commonly used.
Venesection, or phlebotomy, was one of the most common medical practices performed by surgeons from antiquity until the late 19th century, a span of over 2,000 years. In the absence of other treatments for hypertension, bloodletting was popular as a method that temporarily calmed patients and made them feel better.
In the Middle Ages, a belief existed that unicorns grazed the lands that were never visited by a man. For early medieval rulers, the unicorn was a symbol of sacral, spiritual power. Texts about the miraculous power of unicorns and their horns had circulated in middle ages, however most of relics believed to be made of ‘unicorn’s horn’ most likely, was just a narwhal whale’s tusk. Interesting fact that the horn was almost 50 times more expensive than gold at the time.
Arsenic is a natural component of the earth’s crust and is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land. It is highly toxic in its inorganic form.
Afraid of being poisoned the Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584) took daily small amounts of arsenic, the most common and easily obtained poison of the time, to develop resistance to it and withstand a possible poisoning.
As documented in the mid-1800s, mountaineers of central Austria (Styria) made a habit of consuming arsenic preparations once or twice a week as a general stimulant and tonic. They became known as “arsenic eaters,” and some were reputed to have adopted the practice as a means of building up a tolerance against poisoning by their enemies. The acquisition of a modest degree of tolerance has, in fact, been documented in laboratory animals, but its physiological basis is not clear.
Mercury is notorious for its toxic properties, but it was once used as a common elixir and topical medicine. The ancient Persians and Greeks considered it a useful ointment, and second-century Chinese alchemists prized liquid mercury, or “quicksilver,” and red mercury sulfide for their supposed ability to increase lifespan and vitality. Some healers even promised that by consuming noxious brews containing poisonous mercury, sulfur and arsenic, their patients would gain eternal life and the ability to walk on water. One of the most famous casualties of this diet was the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who supposedly died after ingesting mercury pills designed to make him immortal.
From the Renaissance until the early 20th century, Mercury was also used as a popular medicine for sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. While some accounts claimed the heavy metal treatment was successful in fighting off the infection, patients often died from liver and kidney damage caused by mercury poisoning.
While today a “snake oil salesman” is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods, the use of snake oil has real, medicinal routes. Extracted from the oil of Chinese water snakes, it likely arrived in the United States in the 1800s, with the influx of Chinese workers toiling on the Transcontinental Railroad. Rich in omega-3 acids, it was used to reduce inflammation and treat arthritis and bursitis, and was rubbed on the workers’ joints after a long day of working on the railroad.
People have treasured gems for many reasons throughout history. Some of these reasons include the use of gems as beautiful decorative ornaments, religious symbols, amulets and good-luck charms and medicinal purposes.
Ancient people believed that certain gems would protect them from misfortune, illness, and unhappiness. The list of gem-related superstitions is long and sometimes contradictory. Opal, for instance, was thought by some to bring bad luck, while others cherished it as a symbol of hope.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, and even more recently in India, pharmacists sold powdered gems as medicine. They were typically to be taken with water or herbal tea. The most expensive gemstones were thought to have the greatest curative powers. Red gems were supposed to help stop bleeding. Green ones were supposed to help the eyes, because green is a restful color. Yellow stones were believed to cure jaundice.
From the moment the first alcoholic beverages were discovered, man has used it as a medicine . Apart from the stress relieving, relaxing nature that alcohol has on the body and mind, alcohol is an antiseptic and in higher doses has anesthetizing effects. But it is a combination of alcohol and natural botanicals, which creates a far more effective medicine and has been used as such for thousands of years. It is the origin of the most famous toast, “Let’s drink to health”, which exists in many languages around the world.
One of the earliest records of medicinal alcohol comes from Roger Bacon, a 13th Century English philosopher and writer on alchemy and medicine. According to the translation (published in 1683) Bacon suggests wine could: “Preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food till it be turned into very blood.” But he also recognises the dangers of consuming in excess: “If it be over-much guzzles, it will on the contrary do a great deal of harm: For it will darken the understanding, ill-affect the brain… beget shaking of the limbs and bleareyedness.”