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Elizabethan Medicine

The medical techniques of the period.

     Throughout the history of man, medicinal practices have varied widely.  In modern times, it is based off of advanced science, and has evolved to a point when it extends the average person’s life many years.  But in past times, it wasn’t always that way.  Although science made much progress in the Elizabethan Age, medicine of the time was ineffective because it was based on superstition rather than research.

     One of the main medical beliefs in the Elizabethan Era was the 4 Humours.  These four fluids, which included blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile) and melancholy (or black bile), supposedly determined a person’s personality, based on which Humour was predominant  (Elizabethan England).  For example, if a person had a relatively high amount of blood, his or her temperament would be sanguine, and if a person had a large amount of phlegm, his or her personality would be phlegmatic.  Too much of any one of the humours was believed to cause disease, and to cure the diseases; doctors would attempt to purge the most common humour, with methods such as bloodletting by leaches.  People would also use herbs, charms, and amulets in an attempt to make the humour subside  (Hart, 86).  Of course, this belief wasn’t any where near what is known to be accurate today.  People may have come up with the belief when they saw victims of colds or the flu had an excess of phlegm, for example, and jumped to the conclusion that the phlegm was causing the illness.  This would show that there was a lack of scientific investigation into even common diseases.

     Surgery was primitive during the Elizabethan Era.  The gunshot wounds of soldiers would often be treated with boiling oil.  There would be no anesthetics used in any surgery, and most wounds would be cauterized with pitch.  Doctors usually couldn’t fix a broken limb, and it would have to be amputated (Hart, 88).

     Medical quackery permeated the society of Elizabethan England.  Much of this was simply caused by individuals selling miracle “snake oils” for their own profit.  Edward Topsell, one of the more respected doctors of his day, wrote a popular book where he claimed the eyes of dragons could be made into ointment to “ ‘keep anyone that useth it from the terror of night visions.’”  There were many other unscrupulous doctors who sold false potions to their trusting patients.  But, many folk remedies were just as outlandish.  Examples include powdered armadillo bone supposedly curing deafness, and covering a wart with half of a dead mouse supposedly getting rid of it (Lace, 73).   These superstitious beliefs may have only been caused by gossip and urban legends.

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