Tudor Medicine

By Tim Lambert

During the 16th century, there were some improvements in medicine. However, it remained basically the same as in the Middle Ages. In 1478 a book by the Roman doctor Celsus was printed. (The printing press made all books including medical ones much cheaper). The book by Celsus quickly became a standard textbook.

However, in the early 16th century, a man named Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) called himself Paracelsus (meaning beyond or surpassing Celsus). He denounced all medical teaching not based on experiments and experience. However traditional ideas on medicine held sway for long afterward.

Tudor doctors were very expensive and they could do little about illness partly because they did not know what caused disease. They had little idea of how the human body worked. Doctors thought the body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. They were blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, and melancholy or black bile. In a healthy person, all four humours are balanced but if you have too much of one you fall ill.

If you had too much blood you would be bled either with leeches or by cutting a vein. Too much of other humours would be treated either by eating the right diet or by purging (taking medicines to cause vomiting or diarrhea).

Tudor doctors also thought infectious disease, like the plague, was caused by poisonous ‘vapors’, which drifted through the air and were absorbed through the skin. n One of the main ways of diagnosing sickness was uroscopy (examining urine) by its appearance, its smell, or even by its taste!

Astrology also played a part in Tudor medicine. Most doctors believed that different zodiacal signs ruled different parts of the body. n In Tudor times many people died in epidemics of sweating sickness (possibly influenza). Many others died of smallpox. ( Queen Elizabeth I almost died of it. However, she was given the most advanced medical treatment for smallpox -she was wrapped in red cloth). Even if you survived smallpox it could leave you with scars called pockmarks or blindness.

Since doctors were so expensive many people went to see a wise woman if they were ill. The wise women would have a great knowledge of different herbs and their properties and might be able to help. Unfortunately, many Tudor folk cures were absurd e.g. gout treatment was goat’s grease with saffron.

In Tudor Times actual operations were performed by a barber-surgeon. He was the barber, the surgeon, and the dentist combined. Barber-surgeons had a lower status than doctors. Lower still were the apothecaries who made up medicines.

Surgery did become a little more advanced in the 16th century. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) dissected some human bodies and made accurate drawings of what he saw.

However, the greatest surgeon of the age was Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). He did many dissections and realized that many of Galen’s ideas were wrong. In 1543 he published a book called The Fabric of the Human Body. It contained accurate diagrams of the human body. Vesalius’s great contribution was to base anatomy on observation, not on the authority of writers like Galen.

Another great Tudor surgeon was Ambroise Pare. In the 16th century, surgeons put oil on wounds. However in 1536 during the siege of Turin Pare ran out of oil. He made a mixture of egg whites, rose oil, and turpentine and discovered it worked better than oil. Pare also designed artificial limbs.

In 1513 Eucharius Rosslin published a book about childbirth called Rosengarten. In 1540 an English translation called The Birth of Mankind was published. It became a standard text although midwives were women.

The average lifespan in Tudor England was shorter than today. The average life expectancy at birth was only 35. That does not mean that people dropped dead when they reached that age! Instead many of the people born died while they were still children. Out of all people born between one-third and one-half died before the age of about 16. However, if you could survive to your mid-teens you would probably live to your 50s or early 60s. Even in Tudor times, some people did live to their 70s or 80s.

Last revised 2024