Medieval Medical Care

Thursday 15th February comments: The Isle of May is a fascinating place…

A new study has revealed fascinating evidence about the role of the Isle of May in healthcare from the 8th to12th centuries. New analysis of human skeletons shows the importance of the island as a place of pilgrimage and healing. Evidence of rare and end-stage illnesses suggest the island was possibly used as a hospice, with the plants henbane, which still grows on the island, and greater celandine used to relieve pain (henbane has anaesthetic properties and was used to put patients to sleep for surgery) whilst Greater celandine is a mild analgesic.

The nationally important data has come from a PhD by Marlo A. Willows of University of Edinburgh on the 58 skeletons from the excavations – Health Status in Lowland Medieval Scotland: A Regional Analysis of Four Skeletal Populations. The study has revealed new evidence about the role of the island in healthcare – both physical and spiritual – in the early medieval period, before the creation of the Benedictine priory in 1140.

Marlo said, ‘The Isle of May is an important archaeological site not only for its place in ecclesiastical history, but also what we can learn about the treatment of sick and elderly during the medieval period.  Due to burial practices and the type of soil on the island, the skeletal remains were well preserved, a feature absent in many Scottish archaeological sites.  Skeletal analysis, such as identifying disease processes, is easier to accomplish when the condition of the bone is of good quality.

The high prevalence of disease as well as rarer and end-stage diseases leads to the conclusion of a possible hospice-like centre at the Isle of May.  The type of treatment offered to the sick on the Isle of May was likely medicine such as henbane and greater celandine, both plants found on the island, to ease their pain.  It is possible water from the ‘healing well’ was prescribed as a tonic as well.  As with other medieval hospitals, the sick were also provided a bed, meals, and a prayer for their souls.’

Some of the pilgrims had travelled to the island specifically for medical reasons. One individual, known as skeleton 859, may have travelled up to 150 miles from the Highlands to have his cancer healed on the island. Other findings included a case of the earliest known UK of prostate cancer, and the first known Scottish case of congenital syphilis.

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