Medicine: the healer, remedy, cure, treatment…the therapeutic heavenly relief of pain. In whatever way the term is coined, medicine is rooted in the central concept of an ease of ailment. Throughout centuries of human existence, medicine took many forms that are more evident now than ever before through the plethora of practices that vary depending on where you are in the world. In the West, medicine is principally based on pharmaceutical drugs, however Eastern medicine intertwines physiology with nonconventional treatments. If you are from the Caribbean like me, you can count on your elders saying, ‘Jus drink some bush tea and you gon be ok’.
Taking us back in time to the Middle Ages (c. 500 – 1500), the view of medicine in the small Italian town of Salerno was in the midst of change with newly proposed medical literature, The Trotula, that proved different in techniques and treatments. It even introduced a new feature of preventative care, a novel idea in medicine at the time. The Trotula is a collection of medical methods that were employed during a woman’s tenuous body changes namely: menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth, and inevitably, menopause. In an age where women were often denied a formal education, ran the risk of being penned a witch for any intellectual abilities, and whose bodies were still much of a mystery, The Trotula marked an incredible change in European gynecology. Of course, in the Middle Ages there were no ultrasounds, grand hospitals, or stainless-steel surgical tools, so practitioners made use of what they had to hand.
Salerno, as described by Christian historian, William of Apulia, ‘had no lack of fruit, nuts…and whatsoever you desire is provided by either the land or the sea’. Unsurprisingly then, the people turned to nature’s herbs and spices to solve health issues. The second text in The Trotula, On Treatments for Women, features, as the name suggests, the very remedies that became lifesavers when mild and dire illnesses alike made themselves known. Often, a decoction or a raw mixture of herbs was used to treat ailments including cancer, ‘We wash a cancer wherever it is in the body…take frankincense, mastic, wax…aloe, wormwood, mugwort…rue, and sage…let the herbs be ground’. Similarly, for women facing challenges during childbirth, it was recommended that ‘she bathed in water in which mallow, fenugreek, linseed and barley have been cooked’.
Herbal use was not novel in The Trotula. In the Middle Ages, various plants, perfumes, spices, and flowers formed a major part of not only medicine, but in everyday life. The most popular of these herbs included in the text are sage, wormwood, lavender, and rose. Their significant abilities ought not to be underestimated. To highlight this, take a look at sage, from Latin salveo that means ‘I am well’, as a plant that is repeated in many remedies in On Treatments for Women. As seen in the previous cancer recipe, sage has cleansing properties that benefited the body immensely in ailment. For medieval people, this plant was depicted as green and fresh, made to rid of the body of any venom that contaminated the humors through decoctions. Today, sage is common in British and Italian cooking recipes, particularly for seasoning stuffing and sausages. Either way, sage manages to find its way back to us, in sickness and in health!
Today, most people would see these methods as odd when in actuality, medical literature like The Trotula provided the insight needed to push the development of medicine forward into the modern world. Practices, like the Cesarean section, are still being used to date and are constantly being improved. We should never run out of appreciation and respect for those before us who set the foundation and those in the present who continue paving the way forward.
Tecoya is a first year Science student at Bader College, Queen’s University (Canada).
 (Green, 2001, p. 4).
 (Green, 2001, p. 102).
 (Green, 2001, p. 79).