Posted in Places to visit, Tudor Medicine

Tudor medicine… Frog’s spawn anyone?

Tudor physicians believed that fish could cause leprosy, Fresh fruit was considered unhealthy and the stars could put our bodies ‘humours’ completely out out of balance.

The bills of mortality show that Tudor people thought they could die from things such as: wind, worms, gripping of the guts, the teeth, a cough and even of surprise. There were many other Tudor ailments that we don’t even think of as being fatal or even ailments at all. Tudor beliefs about health and medicine can be very strange to modern eyes.

Readers could be forgiven for feeling that the surviving notes of doctor Hall, who practiced in Elizabethan England are more like spells from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books than anything like the serious medical documents they were intended to be:

To stop bleeding from the nose a small cloth was dipped into frog spawn and left to dry. This little ‘tent’ was then inserted into the nostril. (Frog spawn was meant to cool burns and inflammation.) Then clay was applied to the forehead, temples and neck.

After childbirth Lady Sandys suffered from painful hemorrhoids (piles). The doctor recommended an ointment which included buds from the black poplar tree and chopped mandrake root. This legendary plant root looks like a human body. It was believed to have narcotic powers similar to that of opiates. Some believed that mandrakes only grew under gallows and were made by the hanged man spilling his semen as he died. Mandrake roots were thought to scream as they were pulled from the ground and the sound would kill anyone who heard it.

Mary Heath suffered from worms and dysentery with a mucous discharge. The treatment was a rhubarb potion followed by a roasted barley enema. Her drinks were steeled which simply meant they contained iron. She had to eat French bread which was boiled into a pap and taken with more steeled water and sugar.

Tudor medicine was based on what was considered to be the unquestionable authority of Hippocrates and Galen both of whom lived in the second century. They believed that the health of the body depended upon the balance of four humours. Which were blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. If they were out of balance you became ill.  To cure this imbalance Physicians used purgatives such as laxatives, substances to make the patient vomit and enemas. Patients were bled when it was thought they had too much blood in their bodies an attempt to stop fevers. The knives used would simply be wiped clean between patients because water would make the expensive equipment rust. Physicians also gave dietary advice.

Tudors thought that if something smelt bad it could make you sick. They called this unseen but smelly vapor ‘miasma’ and it was meant to gather around dead bodies and anything else filthy or unclean. This included stagnant water which was considered to be the cause of malaria (or as Tudors called it the ague). In Elizabethan times 30% of children who lived near Romney marsh in Kent died by their fourth birthday of this horrible fever. The real cause (mosquitos) would not be discovered for centuries and all of these strange theories were believed by many in the Western medical establishment until the 18th century.This is why bathing was seen as unhealthy in Tudor times. Water opened the skin’s pores allowing miasma to directly enter the body.

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A depiction of miasma theory.

Tudor Physicians were gentleman who had been to university and therefore could be called ‘Doctor’. A doctor might calculate the position of the stars from the exact moment you felt ill. Others might simply look at the colour of your urine and not need to see their patient at all.

Barber Surgeons had seven years training as apprentices and some of that time would be spent with an apothecary. Most of these students would have been illiterate. Today in British hospitals surgeons are still called ‘Mr’ just as in Tudor times as they are not entitled to use the word doctor despite their modern intensive university training.


Tudor surgeons dealt with arrowhead and sword wounds, pulling teeth, hair cutting, sexual diseases and anything that was too beneath a physician’s status to treat. They were not allowed to put anything into the body and only heal what was damaged on the outside. From 1540 the London Barber surgeons were given four executed corpses a year to dissect. The red and white pole which is still used to identify a barber’s shop worldwide originally represented the blood and napkins used to clean up during bloodletting.

Apothecaries dealt with the making up  and sale of drugs and medicines. They were part of the Grocers Guild. They were trained as apprentices and were the Tudor equivalent of today’s pharmacies.

There were also a considerable number of other medical workers, who gained their training informally including cunning men and women, midwives, herbalists and those who used prayer and magic.

Virtual tour a medical history museum in London: The old operating theatre and herb garret museum:

The history of St.Thomas’s hospital:

Herb use PDF:

The centrepiece of the medicinal garden of the Royal College of physicians is a huge oriental plane tree – a descendant from the famous tree on the island of Cos under which Hippocrates is said to have taught his students. The garden and museum in London are open to the public:

The apothecaries set up the Chelsea physic garden which is now open to the public:


 Interactive four humour chart from Wikipedia:


Black bile Melancholic Spleen Cold Dry Earth
Phlegm Phlegmatic Lungs Cold Wet Water
Blood Sanguine Head Warm Wet Air
Yellow bile Choleric Gall Bladder Warm Dry Fire





John Hall was a Stratford physician who was related to William Shakespeare. His Medical notes from 1611-35 survive and have been modernised by Joan Lane with medical notes by Melvin Earls MD. The book covers the treatment of 155 patients who are treated for many different ailments from flatulence to the Falling sickness. It is a fascinating and horrifying to read.

Historical crime fiction with realistic medical details: CJ Sansom is one of my favourite Tudoe fiction writers:

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Dissolution Reviews:

‘Terrific . . . a remarkable, imaginative feat. A first-rate murder mystery and one of the most atmospheric historical novels I’ve read in years’

Mail on Sunday

‘Extraordinarily impressive. The best crime novel I have read this year’

Colin Dexter

‘Remarkable . . . The sights, the voices, the very smell of this turbulent age seem to rise from the page’

P. D. James

‘As good a new thriller as I have come across for years. The London of the 1530s smells real, the politics and the religious machinations are delicious and Sansom’s voice rings true. His troubled hero Shardlake, is a kind of Tudor Morse and a character to treasure’

James Naughtie, Sunday Times
The story:

It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. . .

. . . And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Link to CJ Sansom’s website:



I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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