Healing Medieval Pilgrims

The NHS turned 72 this month, and this year many of us are highly conscious of the importance of community healthcare. Keeping fit and well was essential for the medieval pilgrim, when lengthy journeys on foot carried much higher risks of injury or illness. Pilgrimage was often made in order to seek healing, either for oneself, or on behalf of a loved one, and many pilgrimage routes became established after miracles of healing took place at particular shrines. Holy water from shrines would be ingested just as we would take medicine today. 

Pilgrim’s healthcare

llustrations of flora and fauna in an 11th Century Old English Herbal, the snake indicating these plants can be used to treat poison. (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 27r)

Many pilgrims relied on the network of monastic ‘hospitals’ for rest and recuperation, but these were rarely places of healthcare, rather places of hospitality or almshouses. Monasteries had a vital role to play in the provision of medicine, with spirituality forming an essential element of treatment alongside diet and herbal medicine. Both monks and nuns received training in the provision of healthcare that leaned heavily on classical teachings. Their herbal medicine relied less on the study of cause and effect and more on the Doctrine of Signatures. This was the idea that plants resembling body parts could be used to treat conditions affecting them.

The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530’s suppressed the provision of medicine to huge swathes of the population who were not able to benefit from the handful of state-endowed city hospitals or the newly created Royal College of Surgeons. But a contributing factor to the lack of healthcare for the poor was in part due to centuries of suppression of folk medicine by the church itself.

Folk Medicine

Women had played a vital role in small communities as local healers, utilising knowledge of herbal remedies passed on through generations. More than just midwives, these women had detailed knowledge of plants and herbalism. They knew their patients well, and relied on a position of trust within the community. They were able to prepare sophisticated medicines and provide experienced nursing care so essential to a patient’s recovery.

However, in a time when the church viewed illness as a consequence of sin, it was considered that secular women lacked the spiritual training to be able to effectively treat sickness or injury. This mistrust was not helped by magical connotations placed by some patients – and practitioners – on what was in many cases functional medicine.

These local healers were restricted to treating only people from their own family or in their own home, they were labelled as ignorant, superstitious and dangerous, and whilst there were undoubtedly some risky practitioners at work, the knowledgeable and experienced came to be viewed with the same suspicion.

Ribwort Plantain, recognised by the distinctive ribs in its leaves, was used to treat chest conditions. It contains a natural antihistamine and is still used as a remedy for coughs and nettle stings. 

First hints of state healthcare

As the Reformation halted the tradition of pilgrimage and hospitality as well as eroding the provision of monastic healthcare, there was little to replace it. Many local councils tried to maintain the former monastic infirmaries – but without the benefit of the income generated by monastic lands and donations from pilgrims this was a real financial challenge. Interestingly St Giles in Norfolk initially employed four women to provide healthcare; perhaps their knowledge and skill was recognised, or perhaps they would have been considerably cheaper than their male bloodletter and bonesetter counterparts. 

St Giles Hospital features as a waypoint on the 1-day Norwich circular pilgrimage route
M0014722 Hospital of St. Giles, Norwich. ©Wellcome Library, London.

For the Modern Pilgrim

Thankfully we don’t have to travel far for medical care these days, nor are we reliant on bloodletters! As we hopefully reach the end of Covid restrictions, now is a good time to start making healing journeys of a different kind, perhaps stopping at one of the many ruined monasteries, hospitals and infirmaries that are now full of wildlife. As you make your pilgrimage, why not also stop to pick a wild herb, and spare a thought for the traditional healers who played their part in caring for our ancestors. 

Herb Bennet or Wood Avens, once used to treat poison and dog bites, now used for the treatment of gout.
Enchanter’s Nightshade used to be a salve for wounds, but modern medicine has found no chemical benefits.
Easily recognised from its distinctive scent, Fennel is widely used in food and herbal medicine today.

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