Right! Well, kind of.
I get that question every time I tell someone what I research, and I love it. It gives me a basis to talk from. Much preferred to the alternatives of ‘Medieval studies? That’s…a real major?!’ or ‘Medieval studies? So like…Knights and armour and stuff?’.
There was some bloodletting in Anglo-Saxon England, mostly visible in lists of so-called ‘Egyptian Days’, days of the month on which letting blood was either dangerous or especially healthful. It should be said that medieval physicians were also well aware of the differences between individuals, and warned that treatments, including bloodletting, should be suited to each individual patient’s strength. Leeches must have been used as well, but are mentioned rarely. The theory of humours was clearly known, as it is mentioned occasionally, but was not very common and was not as central to the understanding of disease as it would become.
However, as always, the reality is much more complex and interesting than just that.
Most Anglo-Saxon medicine, in fact most early medieval medicine, involved herbal simples or compounds – drugs made of single or multiple plants. Some would have been very effective. The example par excellence is an eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook:
Make an eyeslave for a wen: take cropleek and garlic equal amounts of both, pound well together, take wine and bull’s gall equal amounts of both, mix with the “leeks”, then put in a brass vessel, let stand for nine nights in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear well, put in a horn and about night time put on the eye with a feather. The best remedy. (Translation from M. L. Cameron, ‘Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic’, p. 201)
This is just a compound drug, not all that different from the drugs that we are used to taking today. Cameron explains that it could also have actually been effective:
The ailment (a stye on the eyelid) would most likely have been a staphylococcal infection of a hair folicle. The ingredients of the salve were onion, garlic, bull’s gall, wine and copper salts (these last produced in the brass vessel). Onion and garlic are antibiotics…Bull’s gall, still in the pharmacopoeia as oxgall, has detergent properties which make it an effective agent against many bacteria, especially Gram-positive ones such as the staphylococci…The chief value of the wine in the recipe would be to react with the copper of the brass vessel to form copper acetates and copper tartarates. The acids of the plant juices would also form copper salts.These salts are all cytotoxic, destroying human cells as well as bacteria. The loss of a few tissue cells would be a small price to pay for the destruction of many bacteria and the clearing up of the infection. It is significant that the preparation was to be kept in the brass vessel for only nine days (during which the copper salts would form) after which it was to be stored in a non-reactive horn container until needed. (Cameron, ‘Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic’, 202).
Other scholars suggest that Cameron was a bit too optimistic about the salve’s effectiveness, but the point is that here, as in most early medieval remedies, there is no ritual or magic involved.
That’s not to say that all early medieval medicine was as ‘rational’ (to use an extremely loaded term). Magic and ritual certainly do make an appearance, as in this childbirth charm from the Old English Lacnunga:
The woman who cannot rear her child: let her go to a dead man’s grave and then step thrice over the grave, and then say these words thrice:
This (is) my remedy for the loathsome (?)slow birth;
This (is) my remedy for the grievous black birth;
This (is) my remedy for the loathsome misformed birth’.
And when the woman is with child and goes to her husband in his rest [or bed], then let her say:
Up I go, over you I step;
With a living child, not with a dying one,
With a child brought to full-term, not with a doomed [i.e. premature] one.
And when the mother feels that the child is alive, then let her go to church, and when she comes before the altar let her say:
(?)To Christ, I have said, this is made manifest.
The woman who cannot rear her child: let her take part of her own child’s grave, the wrap it in black wool and sell it to traders and then say:
I sell it, you sell it!
This black wool and grains [or seed or source] of this sorrow.(Pettit via Sanburn).
Cameron has pointed out that magical remedies were usually reserved for conditions that are difficult to treat, as a kind of last resort.
So, while they did sometimes make an appreance, early medieval medicine was not all newts and witches: