Frontlines | A Peek Inside a Medieval Medicine Cabinet

Courtesy of Wolfgang Eckart

For centuries, the University of Heidelberg, Germany, has housed hundreds of medieval medical texts, but their contents--the conditions that were described, the prescriptions that were advised--have remained largely unknown. Until now. Historians have begun cataloging 298 handwritten manuscripts from the 14th to 16th centuries, says medical historian Wolfgang Eckart, who heads the project. Written by doctors, pharmacists, farmers, mayors, court attendants, and various members of the nobility, especially noble ladies, the texts grant delightful insight into the folk medicine commonly practiced at the time.

Many of the illnesses cited are all too familiar, including hemorrhoids, flatulence, constipation, and gout, and the consequences of overindulging in food and alcohol were common complaints. "The texts contain a treasure trove of 150,000 prescriptions," says Eckart. "While some of them are herbal cures still used in alternative medicine today, others are...

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