Catching a Cold in the Middle Ages

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In the novel I’m currently working on, the hero catches a cold. This was partly to enable the heroine to visit him while he’s in bed (it’s a bad cold) and also to give him the opportunity to notice that she cares about him. Since she’s picked up a bit of knowledge about what to do with sick people, I thought I’d find out how she might look after someone with a cold.

Although it’s unlikely that my heroine would be aware of what the great medical minds of the Middle Ages thought about colds, I started with Medieval Medicine: A Reader. This book contains texts on medical subjects from the sixth to the sixteenth century.

I often read blogs while I’m having breakfast. If that’s what you’re doing and you’re at all squeamish, I recommend you come back later.

In the early Middle Ages, the main objective of someone treating a cold was to remove the mucus from the head (according to the Natural Remedies of Pliny). An infusion of cabbage leaves was recommended for this. A mixture of the juice of black beetroot and honey administered through the nose would also do the trick. In summer you could decoct clover by mashing it and boiling it in water. The patient would drink the result.

The writer also recommends gargles: one made of mustard, turnip seed, pepper, nasturtium seed, rocket, oregano and celery seed mixed with honey and hot water; and one made of mustard seed, sweetened vinegar, stavesacre ( a poisonous delphinium), hyssop heads and honey. I think honey might have been considered a bit of a cure-all in the Middle Ages, although it was more likely included in the gargles to disguise the taste of the other ingredients.

On top of this the patient was to avoid wine and baths and being out in the cold. In some ways this resembles the remedies of my childhood, in that we were given honey in hot milk and told to ‘wrap up warm’. In the days before central heating, not having a bath when you had a cold was a very sensible idea, so we didn’t.

By the thirteenth century things hadn’t changed much. In On the Properties of Things Bartholomew the Englishman suggested a decoction of roses in rain-water to be applied to the nostrils, except when there was a lot of sneezing going on. Alternatively, laudanum, frankincense, storax and castoreum might work.  Storax was a resin obtained from tree bark. Castoreum is secreted from the anal sacs of the beaver and was mostly used to induce vomiting. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s used today as part of a substitute for vanilla flavouring and to flavour cigarettes. Yes, I did suggest you read something else while you’re having breakfast.

On the Properties of Things was a very popular work and was translated into English and French in the second half of the fourteenth century.

My heroine probably has a couple of recipes for gargles and she has a herb garden at her disposal. I doubt that administering an infusion of cabbage leaves to him would endear her to the object of her affections, though.

 

Sources:

Medieval Medicine: A Reader – ed. Faith Wallis

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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38 Comments

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38 responses to “Catching a Cold in the Middle Ages

  1. You’re right April, a cabbage remedy may not be the most romantic act 🙂 Crikey, all I can say that the ones we use now seem such a luxury!!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Losing the Plot

    You probably have all you need, but there is also two texts from Nicholas Culpeper that might be useful; The English Physician, 1652 and The Complete Herbal, 1653. Obviously these are later than medieval books, but they are (I believe) based on women’s folk knowledge. The cures were gathered from all over, and this was the first time they had been written down.

    I hope your heroine isn’t like me, otherwise if he’s in bed too long with a cold she’ll soon loose the stars in her eyes lol!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. A friend makes a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, honey and garlic for colds–especially coughs. Lots of garlic. It tastes foul but it does seem to help. Maybe only because the body decides to get better before it has to sip any more of the stuff.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. A little laudanum wouldn’t have gone amiss; various opium products seem to have been a favourite remedy for all sorts of things for a very long time. I have a 17th century cookbook with two recipes for “syrup of Diacodian” made with poppy heads and “rare good for any coughs”.

    I wonder if the gargles had a numbing effect on a sore throat? So long as you didn’t swallow them – particularly the one with stavesacre in it – they don’t sound too bad. I prefer whisky, myself. Along with lemon and honey drinks.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I suspect the gargles numbed. I can’t imagine they did any soothing.

      If I get a cold, I just go to bed. It’s a very rare event since I retired and stopped working in offices or travelling on trains full of people who felt that taking their colds to work and sharing them was better than spending a day in bed.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Today’s heavy-duty cough syrups include codeine, which is an opiate, and it does suppress the impulse to cough. Drink enough of it (which might be an awful lot–I don’t know) and it’ll suppress the impulse to breathe as well. So yes, laudanum would be good–up to a point–for a cough. But as far as I know, it wasn’t around in the medieval period.

      Liked by 3 people

      • The translation of the passage from On the Properties of Things calls it laudanum, but Wikipedia says laudanum wasn’t around until the 16th century, over a hundred years later. Possibly Bartholomew the Englishman meant some other poppy substance and the translator chose laudanum as the closest equivalent.

        Liked by 4 people

  5. I can’t help but wonder who the very first person was who thought ‘I know, I’ll suck a badgers anal sac, that’ll make me better!’ 😳😀

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I think I’ll stick with a couple of Paracetamol

    Liked by 2 people

  7. A way to a man’s heart is not through his nostrils. This certainly does make me appreciate Alka-Seltzer cold medicine 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I still make myself hot lemon, honey and ginger drinks, and they at least soothe the soul! How about leeches, di they use them? I used to be terrified I’d be given some, and now they seem to have come back into fashion. So funny

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I believe this might be the first post you’ve written here about illnesses in the middle ages. I wonder if people caught colds less often back then since the population was smaller and more spread out?

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is the first time I’ve written about illness. I gave the hero a cold because some of the symptoms are similar to those of an infection, which could easily be fatal. While I was writing it I wondered how long it would take them to realise that it was a cold and not an infection. None of my books answered the question of how common the cold was then, but I’ve guessed that you would come across it a lot if you lived in a very large household.

      Liked by 4 people

  10. Now I’m wondering: did the great cabbage remedy actually do the trick?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. My grandfather (born 1887) swore by salt water via the same route as the cabbage infusion. I tried it once but overdid the salt – excruciating. An over-the-counter saline nasal spray is probably as effective. I won’t share my grandmother’s treatment for an upset stomach. They certainly made them tough back then.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. The very fact you’re writing about it makes your novel stand out (even though you might have not written anything else yet). I keep ruining books and movies for myself by wondering how it is possible that the characters either remain in perfect health (sometimes after having been brutally beaten by ten burly guards, then chained in a basement and fed nothing but dead rats for six months) or die of plague. I am yet to see a Viking jarl with diarrhoea, a general leading an army while sneezing and snotting all over his armour, a Queen Of Everything with…a cold 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. I’m not sure how well a hero with the sniffles will go down with romance readers, but it’s set at this time of year and people do get colds.

      I don’t like reading novels or watching films where actions don’t have consequences. If characters are injured in my novels, they take a while to recover and they suffer the inconvenience of convalescence.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Henry V had gut issues that seemed to indicate Crohn’s disease. Likely, the “cures” he endured did little to help and maybe hastened his early demise. When I read of how he literally disintegrated internally, I get queasy. There, but for a handful of generations, am I! (My bugaboo is diverticulitis.)

      One of my great-grandads was an MD. Another was a homeopathic physician. For “cold in the head and chest”, both had similar recipes using stewed onions and mustard, plastered to the chest. These actually raised blisters! Seems they believed the illness was pulled out of the body that way, and the blisters indicated the “cure” was working! Family managed to keep some of the “receipts” for cures.

      From them, I gleaned a cough medicine comprised of bourbon, honey, lemon & ginger. Also called for laudanum, eucalyptus oils & camphor (the last two which I thought were the same thing), which are either illegal or just too awful to include! A good tablespoon or two in hot tea really clear me up — for a few minutes. At least it’s soothing!

      Probably the availability of modern meds are the greatest boon to our times. Poorly managed common colds could easily have led to an early grave. And think of the use & reuse of the cloths necessary for blowing one’s nose! :-p

      I presume your protagonist survives! Lucky guy! Sounds like your heroine knows her stuff! Wonder if cold cures were considered part of knowing “simples”? I can find little about the term. I know simples include methods to try preventing pregnancies, but not if it means general medical knowledge.

      Once again, you spawn a plethora of questions and speculations! Well done, April!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Shaunn. I’ve skirted over what might have happened when he sneezed. I’m not sure about cloths or sleeves, and it might have been something else entirely. I know there are cultures where the nose isn’t blown into a cloth or tissue, but I’m about to have my lunch, so I won’t think about it any further.

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  13. I think I’d rather spend a day or two in bed too April!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I love and admire the way you get into your research, April. And I see there’s an additional benefit from having knocked the fags on the head!

    Liked by 2 people

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