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Elizabethan Superstions and Medical Practices

Many people do not realize how fortunate they are to have the medical advances and medical technology we easily have the right to use. People from many years ago did not have specialized doctors and medicine to cure their diseases that we easily have access to today. (Ramsey) Many civilizations used what they thought to be alleviating processes, but medical experts today know now were pointless and dangerous. Among these people were the Elizabethans. (Chamberline) The Elizabethan Era was a time of accusations. People believed certain procedures were curing people when in fact they were killing them. (Ramsey) They also blamed mysterious acts they could not explain on innocent people, creating a handful of superstitions we know and use today. Unexplainable events and hazardous medical customs sparked the era of the Elizabethan Age. (Elizabethan Superstitions)

            The Elizabethan medical practices were created around the idea of four humours, or fluids of our body. “It was believed that four humours or fluids entered into the composition of a man: blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile), and melancholy (or black bile).” If one of these fluids became imbalanced, having more or less fluid than the other three, the person was believed to be ill. A fever is a common sickness we know today, that was believed to be created by an unbalanced humour. To cure these patients, doctors would reduce the amount of blood or bile in the body. (Ramsey)

            Children were the main victims of sickness due to their young immune system. These included measles, smallpox and chicken pox. These diseases that can be prevented easily with a vaccination at birth were viewed as hopeless to the children or adult that received it. Many of them were abandoned because it was thought to be passed down from generation to generation. Syphilis was a common accused disease that was said to be hereditary. (Ramsey) Although the medical advances today show us this sickness could have easily been prevented from a better personal hygiene, along with many other diseases of the Elizabethan Era. (Andrews)

            Although many medical treatments revolved around the humours, Elizabethan doctors and physicians invented other “remedies” they believed helped. (Pearson) To relieve an earache, doctors would put roasted onions in the patient’s ear. For a stye, a person was told to rub the eye with a tail of a cat. For a mental patient transfusing of the blood with blood of a lamb was supposed to be healing. This procedure stopped, though, when a patient died. (Ramsey) For people today these seem very unnecessary and can cause an even deeper sickness. (Pearson)

            Surprisingly some physicians did find healthy working ways to cure some conditions. Ambroise Pare found out that hygiene did actually have an effect on healing. He was an army physician and accidentally ran into his cure. He was treating gunshot wounds, when he ran out of oil. The doctors then put boiling oil on wounds because they believed this would cure their wound. One day he ran out of oil, and instead just washed the wound with water. The next day he found out the people treated with water were more healed than the people with the boiling oil. From then on, physicians stopped using oil and created one of the first acts of hygiene. (Ramsey)

            Surgical treatments could be described in one word: excruciating. The Elizabethans had no form of anesthetics. They tried creating an alleviating potion that they would drink before surgery, called Dwale, but we know now that it did not mask any pain at all. (Lyons) It is quite ironic how people went into surgery only to feel a huge amount of more pain. The people who performed the surgery were often Monks. Monks or any religious figure had access to the books and education most other common people didn’t.  Popes soon said that Monks should not be performing the treatments, and regular common people started doing them. The common people that were allowed access could have as little knowledge as castrating animals. Because surgery was so painful, most people only had them performed when it was a matter between life and death. “Childbirth in the Middle Ages was considered so deadly that the Church told pregnant women to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins in case of death.” Another disturbing healing method included eye cataract surgery. The patient would get a needle or knife inserted into the cornea forcing the lens of the patient’s eye to the bottom; thus creating even more damage to the eye. Sometimes the patient would even lose their eye sight. (Morton)

A superstition is a belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge that was created from either fear or mysterious happenings. Along with medical practices, superstitions formed when people could not explain events happening. It was believed the Elizabethan superstitions were influenced from the Dark Ages and the Roman gods and goddesses when it was believed animals and certain plants had mystical powers. They may sound strange to us today, but many people use them today without even knowing. (Elizabethan England Superstitions)

            Saying “God Bless You” was created from the Elizabethan Era. The Elizabethans believed every time someone would sneeze the devil could enter the person’s body. Saying God bless you would stop the devil from entering. This belief was again created when people could not explain why someone was sneezing. The belief of touching or knocking on wood would prevent bad luck from happening. This also came from the Elizabethan period, but dates back to the dark ages where people thought trees had supernatural powers. Another common superstition would be spilling salt or pepper. This was seen as bad luck because salt and pepper, at the time, were expensive spices. (Elizabethan England Superstitions)

            Another major superstition that has influenced our world today and comes around once a year is Halloween. Halloween can be described as black, scary, and full of witches. Witches were created from the Elizabethans. Witches were commonly accused women said to have “mysterious powers.” Divorced old or single women were generally targeted as being witches because they had no man to stand up for them. Men were rarely accused because they could stand up for themselves and have people listen to them because of physical fears. “There were 270 Elizabethan witch trials, of 247 were women and only 23 were men!” (Elizabethan England Superstitions)

            Because women were the ones to stay at home and do all the household chores, the superstition arose that women could fly on broomsticks. A broomstick is a popular household item and again is generally made of wood, which was thought to have magical powers. Women also cooked, giving them the knowledge of different herbs and recipes. This is where the idea of witches stirring up potions in cauldrons came from. Witches also are categorized with having a black cat as a pet. An unmarried woman is generalized with having a cat or numerous pets to fill the place of a husband. A black cat is a superstition viewed as being bad luck. A black cat because black was considered the color of evil. These pets were considered to have supernatural powers that would help the witches with their potions. (Elizabethan England Superstitions)

            Queen Elizabethan created a witchcraft law of punishment of hanging for all witches. Witch trials were also held for accused witches. Out of all the witch trials most were found guilty although as time went on punishments became less severe and physical punishments were no longer allowed. The lives of the accused witches were damaged for the rest of their lives though. People looked at them as social outcasts of society. Their lives would never be the same. (Elizabethan Superstitions)

            The Elizabethan period was an extraordinary period full of accusations and customs. Many of the treatments and ideas people created then influenced our lives today, whether most people know it or not. Our world is shaped around the ideas people have brought together, and the Elizabethans did just that. (Andrews) They gave us a start for our future. They may not have given us the best solutions to our medical needs, but we must start somewhere. The mistakes they made led us to the achievements we have today. (Pearson)

               

                Works Cited

Andrews, John F. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. Canada: Collier

            MacMilliam. 1985.

Chamberline, E.R. Everyday Life in Renaissance Times. London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1967.

"Elizabethan Superstitions." ELIZABETHAN ERA. Web. 12 May. 2010.

<http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-superstitions.htm>.

"Elizabethan England Superstitions,Elizabethan Superstitions." Elizabethan Era England

Life,Facts,Elizabethan Times,Religion,Costumes,Education,Theatre. Web. 15 May. 2010 <http://www.elizabethanenglandlife.com/elizabethan-england-superstitions.html>.

Lyons, Albert S. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Morton, David. "10 Excruciating Medical Treatments from the Middle Ages."

            Oddee. Web. 15 May 2010. <http://www.oddee.com/item_96620.aspx>.

Pearson, Lu Emily. Elizabethans at Home. Stanfordm California: Standford University Press,

 1957.

Ramsey, Lia. "Medical Practices and Beliefs." Springfield Public Schools - Home. Web. 12 May.

 2010. <http://www.springfield.k12.il.us/schools/springfield/eliz/Medbelprac.html>.

 

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