Medicine and health were of great importance in Elizabethan times. Although there were no hospitals as we know them today, there were plenty of medical practitioners who could be consulted for a wide range of ailments. Herbs and other natural remedies were also commonly used to treat illnesses.
Hygiene was also crucial in preventing the spread of disease. Homes were typically quite cramped and dirty, so keeping clean was a challenge. Bathing was not done very often, and people often went without changing their clothes for weeks or even months at a time!
Despite all these challenges, the average lifespan during the Elizabethan era was actually quite long. This was due in part to the relatively good diet that many people enjoyed. Meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables were all readily available, and people generally ate three meals a day.
So overall, despite some challenges, medicine and health were actually quite good in Elizabethan times.
The Elizabethan era was not only a time of medical progress, but also one of enormous superstition. Medicine remained linked to astrology and other supernatural ideas. (Davis) Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan period. The conditions were, however, quite unsanitary. People would throw their garbage out the window and, if their dog or cat died, they would likewise discard it from the window. When it rained, cats and dogs streamed down the street like water. This is where the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” originates from.
Medicine at the time was not as advanced as it is today. There were no antibiotics or other medications to help cure people. If someone was sick, the only thing that could be done was to give them fluids and hope for the best. One of the most common diseases during this time period was the plague. The plague was a deadly disease that killed many people.
It caused lesions on the skin and fever. There was no known cure for it at the time and so many people died from it. Medicine in Elizabethan times was very primitive and unscientific. However, there were some medical advances made during this time period. For example, William Harvey discovered how blood circulates through the body. This discovery helped lead to modern day medicine (BBC).
While the medical advances made during the Elizabethan era were important, they were not enough to overcome the many challenges faced by people at the time. Poor sanitation, lack of knowledge about diseases, and lack of effective treatments meant that many people died from preventable illnesses. Despite these challenges, some progress was made in medical science during this period and laid the foundation for further advances in the future.
The Black Death, also known as the Plague, was the most famous and dreaded disease in Elizabethan England. This sickness rapidly spread, had no cure, and resulted in a large number of casualties. An outbreak in 1593 is said to have killed 15,000 people in London alone (Andrews).
Extreme heat is believed to have caused the deaths of many sick individuals in early spring. In addition, there was an outbreak of typhus that occurred during World War I. Typhoid fever and other illnesses, such as malaria and syphilis, were spread by mosquitoes. Scurvy resulted from a lack of Vitamin C in the diet; it was particularly common among sailors (Andrews).
While there were no cure for these diseases, there were some treatments available. For the plague, these included bloodletting, which was thought to rid the body of the bad blood that caused the disease; and purging, or taking medication to induce vomiting and diarrhea. (Andrews). There were also a number of herbal remedies that were used to treat various conditions. These included mandrake root, which was thought to be a cure for many ills; and St. John’s Wort, which was used as a treatment for depression.
Medicine and health in Elizabethan times was far from perfect, but there have been great strides made since then in both prevention and treatment of disease.
Typhus, smallpox, diphtheria, and measles were just a few of the epidemic illnesses that became widespread in the sixteenth century. Plague, measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and diphtheria were among them. Many children were abandoned as a result of the plagues and epidemics of plague (it was feared they might pass it on). Smallpox has been proved to be one of the most lethal diseases affecting villages. The majority of citizens had no knowledge about the disease or those who survived it; thus many persons experienced lifelong damage.
For example, if you believed that a fever was a result of the devil, then you would use exorcism to cure the person. There were however some treatments which were effective and widely used. These included bleeding, purging and leeching. Leeches were often used as they believed that it would suck out the bad blood.
Surgery was also performed, but it was often very dangerous due to the lack of anaesthetics and antiseptics. One of the most famous Elizabethan surgeons was Ambroise Paré who developed techniques for treating battle injuries. He is also credited with inventing a type of bandage which is still in use today. (Encyclopedia)
Elizabethans did not have much understanding of hygiene and this often led to the spread of disease. Poor sanitation and lack of clean water also contributed to the spread of illness. Many people died from diseases which are now easily treatable, such as dysentery, pneumonia and tuberculosis. (Farrar)
Medicine and health in Elizabethan times was a very dangerous and uncertain time. Although there were some effective treatments available, many people died from diseases which we now consider minor. The lack of understanding about hygiene also led to the spread of many illnesses.
The most prevalent misconception was that health was determined by the four fluids, or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The amounts of these fluids affected a person’s physical and mental well-being. A person whose body was dominated by blood was considered jolly and charitable.
Violence and vengeance were indicated by an excess of yellow bile. A surplus of phlegm made a person passive, sickly pale, and cowardsome. Slothfulness could bejustified by the presence of black bile. According to Elizabethans, the heart, liver, and brain were the three main organs in the body.
The heart was seen as the centre of a persons life, and the seat of all emotions. The liver was thought to produce bile, and was also associated with anger. Lastly, the brain was seen as the source of phlegm. There were many ways that people tried to cure themselves, some which we would see as very strange today. For example, one way to get rid of a headache was to shave your head and then rub onions on the area where it hurt.
If someone had a stomach ache they would try drinking a mixture of milk and pigeon droppings! There were also many superstitions about illness and health. It was believed that if you gave someone a pair of scissors it would cut off their life-force, and if you saw a spider in the morning it meant that you would die before the day was out.
Medicine and health in Elizabethan times was a very complex topic, and there was still much to be discovered. However, people did their best with the knowledge they had at the time, and many treatments did help to cure people. Even with our modern knowledge, we can still learn a lot from Elizabethan medicine about how to care for our health.