Alison Coates has been a re-enactor for over twelve years, spending a lot of time at Kentwell Hall in Long Melford, Suffolk. Alison explained that it was quite easy to distinguish which class a person came from by their clothing. The gentry wore richer colours and fabrics, their garments being made of silk, velvet and fur. The common folk wore paler colours and their clothes were mainly made from wool.
Before the reformation it was the monks who largely looked after the health of the local people, often assisted by the Mistress of the Manor. The other people looking after the population’s wellbeing were Physicians, Barber Surgeons, Midwives, Wise-women and Wise-men.
The high status Physicians relied on theory rather than practical experience. They looked to the four elements of air, earth, fire & water and believed the body was governed by four humours:-
Sanguine – blood – hot/wet
Yellow bile – choleric – hot/dry
Melancholic – black bile – cold/dry
Phlegmatic – phlegm – cold/wet
It was believed that health problems occurred when the humours were out of balance.
The Barber Surgeons performed amputations, extracted bullets and served on board fighting ships.
Only women were allowed to attend at childbirth and younger Midwives tended to learn from older more experienced ones. Midwives were not licensed until the reign of Elizabeth I.
Wise-women and Wise-men had no access to books and although they were herbalist, they also relied on magic and superstition.
Alison told us about the daily routine of the stillroom – harvesting plants and flowers, chopping and pounding them, distilling rosewater, lavender and conifer oils. She explained how melted lard was mixed with herbs and flowers to make salves.
There were some interesting cures in medieval times – a mouse down the throat was believed to pull out the phlegm, as a cure for whooping cough! There are some things that do work though: pigeon dung on a bullet wound does seal the wound and keep out infection, comfrey leaves (knit bone) will make a cast for a bone fracture and the juices aid recovery, hawthorn is for blood pressure, feverfew for migraine, sage leaves and salt to clean the teeth, violets make a cooling poultice for inflammation and the latex from dandelion stalks is for warts.
Alison also brought along a variety of the herbs and flowers mentioned in the talk from her own garden.