A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 8

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Circa 1348—1399


"They come, the shapes of joy and woe.
 The airy crowds of long ago.
 The dreams and fancies known of yore,
 That have been, and shall be no more."

THE sufferings inflicted by the punishments of the Middle Ages must have been slight compared to the miseries produced by the gross ignorance of the doctors and surgeons of these old times. It is impossible not to smile at their strenuous efforts to appear learned before their unhappy patients. Our forefathers suffered from much the same diseases as we do to-day: they had consumption and cancer, gout and rheumatism and measles, epilepsy and whooping-cough; they had wounds and sores to be treated with no antiseptic dressings, operations to be performed by rough barbers with no anæsthetics. Faith healing still played a large part in the cure of Middle Age maladies, and so deeply-rooted was the idea that prayer and intercession, combined with a concoction of herbs from the monastery gardens, would heal the sick, that it was deemed a want of faith to employ other remedies. "It is better," they said, "to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men," a beneficial reflection, when one considers for a moment what the "hands of men" meant. A strange mixture of magic and superstition, astrology and astronomy, logic and alchemy, seemed to be necessary for the medieval doctor. Men had a firm belief in the relation between the human body and planets, and medicine was administered according to planetary influence only. Chaucer's physician is well "groundit in astronomy"

"He kept is pacient a ful gret del
In hourys by his magyk naturel;
Wel couth he fortunen the ascendent
Of his ymags for his pacient."

The famous medical schools at Salerno "supplied the fires from which the other nations lit their torches" during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Wounded Crusaders brought to England news of new methods and practice in the art of medicine and surgery; Franciscan and Dominican Friars had given a fresh impetus to medical learning in this country, but Roger Bacon, the most learned Englishman of his day, devoted too much of his time to the creation of tinctures and elixirs for the renewal of youth. Indeed, all the medieval doctors devoted much attention to this subject, which was of prior importance in these days. Here is one of their receipts:—

"To make the hair golden, take of elder bark, flowers of broom, yolk of egg, and saffron, equal parts; boil them in water; skim off what floats on the surface and use as pomade."

And here is another:—

"A Marvellous Balsam.—Take thrice distilled turpentine, lign-aloes, ambergris, and musk, equal parts, rub them up to a liquid ointment and distil nine times. Used on the face it will preserve youth, heal all wounds, marvellously clear the eyes, and preserve the body from all forms of putrefaction."

The following hints to medieval doctors show how little medical knowledge they really possessed:—

"When called to a patient commend yourself to God and to the angel who guided Tobias. On the way learn as much as possible from the messenger, so that if you can discover nothing from the patient's pulse, you may still astonish him and gain his confidence by your knowledge of the case. On arrival, ask the friends whether the patient has confessed, for if you bid him do so after the examination it will frighten him. Then sit down, take a drink, and praise the beauty of the country or extol the liberality of the family. Next, proceed to feel his pulse. Do not be in a hurry to give an opinion, for his friends will be more grateful for your judgment if they have to wait for it. Tell the patient you will by God's help cure him, but inform his friends that the case is a serious one."

"Suppose you know nothing," suggests a writer of this period, "say there is an obstruction of the liver. Perhaps the patient will reply: 'Nay, Master, it is my head or my legs that trouble me.' Repeat that it comes from the liver and especially use the word 'obstruction,' for patients do not understand it, which is important."

"When you go to a patient, always try and do something new every day, lest they say you are good at nothing but books."

"Work on your patients; secure their confidence, light up their imagination, and you are sure of success."

The doctor's fee was a much-considered item: "Never dine with a patient who has not paid you; it will be cheaper to get your dinner at an inn, for such feasts are usually deducted from the surgeon's fee."

Here is an ingenious device for securing the fee: "When you are treating a wound or accident, the friends of the patient should be excluded, for they may faint and cause a disturbance, but sometimes a higher fee may be got from persons present fainting and breaking their heads against wood and the like, than from the principal patient."

Some of their prescriptions are equally suggestive. Here is an ingenious cure for lethargy: "Shave the patient's head and anoint it with honey; the flies will so worry him that he will continually strike out at them, which will cure his lethargy."

Or here are instructions for the treatment of palpitations: "Let the patient avoid all coarse meats, such as that of oxen, goats, horses, camels, and water-fowl, rich fish, pastry, new bread, and old or moist cheese. Let him take moderate exercise before eating and rest entirely after it, and then ride horses or gently-trotting mules, avoiding rapid ascents or descents. Frequent combing of the hair is a great help, especially after sleep, for it assists the evaporation of the humours which ascend to the head."

In the same book there is an elaborate receipt for driving away mice: "Take realgar, salt, pomegranite bark, hellebore root, sulphur, litharge, and shells of shrimps, equal parts, rub together, and sprinkle on hot coals through the house. All mice will flee and will never come back. But do you also avoid that fume, for it is horrible exceedingly!"

One paragraph is specially funny. "In this book," says the author, "I propose with God's help to consider diseases peculiar to women, and since women are, for the most part, poisonous creatures, I shall then proceed to treat of the bites of venomous beasts."

Such, briefly, were the crude ideas surrounding the art of medicine, while surgery was chiefly in the hands of the barbers, when the terrible Black Death burst over England, defying all human skill to stay its deadly onslaught. It was a "calamity which was the most stupendous that ever befell this island." Having carried off some five million Chinese, it crept over Asia, Africa, and Europe, depopulating each city it attacked. It varied in form, but rarely in its fatal results. In England it was characterised by large boils and black spots, known as "God's tokens," from which it took its name, and ended with violent inflammation of the lungs and death. It might last three days; more often death ensued in a few hours. It attacked all classes: from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the poorest labourer, none was safe; it spread like wildfire through every village and town in England; it carried off mother and child alike. Homes were left childless, children fatherless; churches were left without pastors, monasteries without priors, convents without abbess or nuns.

"So they died! The dead were slaying the dying.
And a famine of strivers silenced strife:
There were none to love and none to wed.
And pity and joy and hope had fled,
And grief had spent her passion in sighing;
And where was the Spirit of Life?"

At last the plague was stayed, but not till half the population of England lay dead. The whole organisation of the country was disturbed, cultivation was at a standstill. "Sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn, and there were none left who could drive them." Harvests lay rotting on the ground, fields were unploughed, crops ungathered, seeds unsown: the sound of the grinding was low, and mourners went about the streets.

It was this wholesale destruction of life that gave rise to a new social order of things in the land, creating for the first time that discord between the employer and employed which has been so marked a feature of economic England from the fourteenth century even to the present time. Already the system of cultivation by forced service had given way to payments in kind, which in the reign of Edward III. had become yet more general. But now half the labourers had disappeared from the face of the land, and those who remained alive demanded higher wages. They had suddenly become indispensable to the large landowners and were in a position for the first time to dictate their own terms. Women who had worked in the fields for a penny a day now demanded twopence. With one accord the poor refused to live on "penny ale and bacon"; they demanded "fresh flesh or fish fried or baked." Measures were hastily taken against this insubordination on the part of the working classes. A Statute of Labourers recalled the survivors to a sense of their menial position, fixed a scale of wages at the same rates as they had been before the Black Death, and ordered punishment to be inflicted on those who demanded more. The result spelt friction between rich and poor, landowner and wage-earner. Up to this time the whole system of social inequality had passed "unquestioned as to the Divine order of the world." Now a smouldering discontent arose, which could not be smothered. John Ball voiced the general feeling. For the first time Englishmen listened to one who upheld natural equality and the rights of man—the words of the agitator sum up the social status of the people:—

"Things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we are? On what grounds have they deserved it? If we all come of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? They are clothed in velvet and warm in their furs^and their ermines, while we are covered with rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread; we have oat cake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and the wind in the fields."

"When Adam delved and Eve span,
 Who was then the gentleman?"

sang the English labourer, newly roused to a sense of his natural rights—rights which no legislation could crush and no tyranny deny. Through the intervening centuries the assertion of these rights has been more and more pronounced, until to-day the time has ripened for yet vaster natural developments, and the labourer has secured that representation in Parliament which is his right in a free country.