The Medieval Antiseptic

Bee

At the beginning of last year, I read a statement that honey was spread on wounds in the Middle Ages. That seemed an odd thing to do and there was no source given in the notes of the book. It didn’t even say what putting honey on wounds was supposed to achieve or whether that was a sensible thing to do.

I searched through some of my more likely books, but could find nothing about it at all. I have three books about medicine in the medieval and renaissance periods and none of them mentions honey in their index.

More recently I was reading the magazine produced by the gin club I’m in and there was an article about bees. Apparently honey is a good ingredient for some cocktails, but that wasn’t what I found interesting. Towards the end of the article it said that honey “naturally produces the antibacterial substance hydrogen peroxide in small amounts. In nature this protects the honey stores from bacteria…”. So there it was: an antiseptic that was used in the Middle Ages.

A few weeks after that, I was listening to a podcast I follow and the interviewee was talking about the stockpiling of honey during times of war in the Middle Ages, the inference being that it was taken on campaign to be used on wounded soldiers. She also spoke about a reference to honey being used by a doctor on a very important patient – Prince Henry, soon to be Henry V.

When he was Prince of Wales, Henry fought in the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. An arrow struck him in the face, penetrating six inches, and he was taken to Kenilworth Castle where John Bradmore, a court physician who was in prison under suspicion of counterfeiting coins, worked out a method for extracting it. Not surprisingly, other physicians were wary of removing the arrow, since the chances of killing the young prince were high. Given that counterfeiting was punished severely, Bradmore must have thought he had little to lose. He also had a plan.

I won’t go into the details of the plan and how it worked out; you might be eating. Suffice it to say that the arrow was removed and Henry survived. What matters is that Bradmore wrote a treatise about what he had done called Philomena, in which he recorded that he poured honey into the wound.

It has taken over eighteen months, and a variety of unexpected sources, but I now feel that I can refer to honey being used on wounds in my novels rather than to some unnamed ointment.

 

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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53 Comments

Filed under Medieval Medicine

53 responses to “The Medieval Antiseptic

  1. Losing the Plot

    Wish I had a source for you, 🙁. I think it pre dates the Medieval period, being used in antiquity. I’m sure I have come across references of use after battles in Rome.

    It is still being used, even within the NHS. Due to a consultant’s shortsighted decision not to dress the wound on my leg, I ended up with MRSA in the wound. There was nothing entertaining about that, so I omitted that from the story, but the wound was then dressed with honey each day to help clear the infection.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. A cliff hanger!I am looking forward to the plan!…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Weren’t spiders’ webs used on wounds to promote healing?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve come across that, but I’m not sure where. I’ve read so much about medieval medicine this year that I’m not sure which cure was used for which illness/wound. If there’s enough information, I’ll do a post when I come across it again.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Please do! I love learning about medieval medicine.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Webs had to do with stopping bleeding. I read it long ago
          in an article about remote places in Indonesia. The practice must have been known since earliest times, perhaps by chance encounters of bleeding parts coming into contact with webs. This information probably passed through generations of humans in areas where spiders made webs.

          Apparently if the wound is small, webs can be loosely wadded & placed over the cut. Seems like it’d take a bunch of webs for large wounds, but they have some enormous webs in jungles and wooded areas. Maybe honey is used as well? Pretty sure a bandage of some kind is also applied, but it was along time ago & I was pretty grossed-out.

          I wonder if the Eastern Asian cultures used fabric silk for wounds? Real silk was used (and may still be) for sewing wounds closed.

          We’ve lost a lot of really good survival skills! Thankfully, April’s contributions are helping us!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. A work colleague of mine who was a beekeeper, as was her mother, always used honey on wounds. Their honey, of course was not pasteurised. Manuka honey is still promoted as a treatment for wounds. Since I was a child I have loved the fact that honey doesn’t go off-great substance all round. My husband has an aversion to anything sticky so I don’t think it would work as a treatment in this house!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I can’t remember where, but recently I too came across a reference to a medieval practice of using honey on wounds. I think it was in a novel. Thanks for sharing your research journey on this! ❤

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m so glad your 18-month search has paid off. What a great feeling!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Grand post April, I did know about honey still being used in the NHS (as is Oxygen & egg white!) but am late to the party so won’t blither on.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. coleen561

    When I was writing my book (set in 12th century) I used both honey and cobwebs for wounds. Please be assured that I have no connection to these authors, but these are the books I used in my research: Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine by Toni Mount (later re-titled, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science) and Royal Poxes and Potions: Royal Doctors and their Secrets by Raymond Lamont Brown.

    Hope this helps!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. A fascinating honey discussion. As others have noted, manuka honey has particularly high anti-bacterial qualities, and is used to make medical grade honey for dressing wounds.

    Whether eating manuka honey is better for you than eating other types of honey might be debateable – but its reputation means it’s way more expensive in the supermarkets. Sometimes I buy a little jar as a treat. A teaspoonful goes well with a cup of lemon or turmeric tea and I tell myself it’s good for my joints.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Can any Kiwis tell me what is special about Mankua? It’s $15 U.S. for 250 ml., or 8.8 fluid oz. It may be worth putting into a medicine chest, as honey is always good.

    I did hear that Mankua does not have peroxide. Is that good or bad?

    Like

  11. I know a number of natural medicine practitioners, and have run across the “honey for wound care” idea a number of times. So glad you were able to get a source for it, so you don’t have to use a generic ointment for your books (it’s always the little things, isn’t it?). I also did a bit of Googling, and thought you might be interested in this article, which starts off with the Henry story –

    http://www.longwood.edu/news/2015/medieval-surgeons-surprisingly-skilled-in-healing/

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I was reading through ‘In Search Of The Dark Ages’ again the other day and noticed that, in the section on Offa, it has a list of the things they ate at a typical feast. One was 10 jars of honey! So it wss certainly a widespread foodstuff. If it worked on wounds, I’m definitely wouldn’t be surprised to hear they used it a lot in medicine.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I’m currently writing a novel that takes place in the Middle Ages. Needless to say, your article will be very useful for my story. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Fascinating as ever, April. I do admire your attention to detail and tenacity.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jerry Wright

    Modern Special Forces are taught to use honey to treat surface wounds. The pure sugar acts as an antiseptic, and the honey will cling to the wound’s surface and act as a barrier to prevent bacteria from getting in.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Raw Mankua honey will keep it’s potency for centuries. Pricey, but for a shelf life like that, and the properties it carries, a bargain!

    Liked by 1 person

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