Medieval Diseases: A Historical Perspective

In our modern world, we live with umpteen amount of facilities taking care of all our needs. This also includes medical help. With medical technology going from better to better, we have the liberty to get treated for the most threatening of diseases. However, this was not the case during the medieval times. Back then, there was hardly any awareness regarding what illnesses plagued people and what caused their deaths.
With only a very basic understanding of illnesses and equally basic treatments available, many people lost their lives due to ill health.

The lifestyle, basic and rustic, the structure of the villages, living standards, and outdoorsy life further exposed people to different diseases back then.

The medieval period was marked by various dangerous diseases including the outbreak of the plague in 542 and the end of the occurrence of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, in 1348. During this period, diseases that reached epidemic proportions included leprosy, bubonic plague, smallpox, and tuberculosis.

Diseases during the medieval period

Have you ever wondered what were some common diseases in Medieval Europe? Life in the Medieval period might have been simple and uncomplicated, but the rustic nature and the lack of awareness and emphasis on hygiene did the medievalers in. Their way of life and the structure of the villages induced several diseases in society. A lack of proper medicine and hospitals further made these diseases more fatal. Some of the most common medieval diseases that often plagued people during the medieval era include:

Leprosy: Medieval people’s inadequate hygiene practices resulted in dreadful skin ailments, including leprosy. Leprosy, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, was linked to unsanitary conditions. It targeted and ravaged the body’s extremities, notably the fingers and toes, and occasionally affected the nose.

Smallpox: While the earliest evidence of smallpox dates as far back as 10,000 BC, it was introduced to Europe sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries, becoming a recurring epidemic during the Middle Ages. This disease had a profound impact on the course of Western civilization, affecting large populations during the medieval era. Smallpox was particularly dreaded at the time, and there appeared to be no apparent cure or medical treatment available during that period.

Tuberculosis: During the Middle Ages, scrofula, a disease impacting cervical lymph nodes, was identified as a novel clinical manifestation of tuberculosis (TB). Referred to as the “king’s evil” in England and France, it was commonly believed that individuals afflicted with this condition could experience healing through a royal touch. In 1720, English physician Benjamin Marten was the first to propose the infectious nature of TB, marking a significant development in understanding the disease.

Dysentery: Dysentery, a prevalent and deadly disease among medieval warriors, posed a significant health threat. This disease induces inflammation in the lining of the large intestine and manifests symptoms such as fever and vomiting. However, its most severe impact is the onset of debilitating diarrhea, making it a particularly challenging condition for those affected in the midst of battle.

Malaria: The absence of mosquito repellents, and nets, and an understanding of the dangers posed by mosquito bites meant that malaria persisted as a prevalent disease during medieval times. Treatments for malaria in medieval Europe were often drastic, involving practices such as bloodletting, induced vomiting, limb amputation, and trepanning (creating a hole in the skull). The notion that ‘mal aria,’ or bad air in medieval Italian, was the cause of malaria endured in Western medicine until the late 19th century.

Typhoid: The Middle Ages faced a multitude of devastating diseases, and typhoid, also known as ‘camp fever,’ was among them. The lack of effective treatment during that time resulted in severe health consequences. A notable historical event highlighting the impact of typhoid was the Siege of Antioch in 1098, where Crusaders besieging the walled city succumbed to the disease in significant numbers, as it broke out in their camp.

With time, things changed and so did the approach of people. The practice of isolating individuals with contagious diseases first emerged in response to the spread of leprosy, which became a significant health concern during the Middle Ages, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Black Death served as a catalyst for the establishment of a sanitary control system by public officials to fight contagious diseases. This initiative involved the making of observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures. Significantly, there were major endeavors to enhance sanitation, including the creation of pure water supplies, improved garbage and sewage disposal methods, as well as more rigorous food inspection processes. 

Causes and Transmission

During this period, the presence of filth was an undeniable reality that affected people across all social classes. Towns and cities were marked by dirt, with the streets often serving as open sewers due to the absence of running water and a lack of awareness regarding hygiene practices. Waste materials such as dung, refuse, and animal remains were casually disposed of into rivers and ditches, leading to the contamination of both water sources and the surrounding regions. These unsanitary conditions provided an ideal habitat for the proliferation of fleas, rats, and mice, spreading several medieval diseases.

The use of rushes and grasses as floor coverings in the Middle Ages posed a significant hygiene challenge. Although the upper layer might occasionally be replaced, the underlying layer was frequently left to accumulate and decay. Given the limited understanding of germs and the mechanisms of disease transmission during this era, the Church often attributed illnesses to ‘divine retribution’ for leading a sinful life.

Plagues and the transmission of various diseases typically occur through infected fleas carried by rodent vectors or, infrequently, through contaminated clothing or grain. Other modes of transmission of medieval diseases included the ingestion of contaminated animals, direct physical contact with infected individuals, or the inhalation of infectious respiratory droplets.

Given the limited understanding of germs and the mechanisms of disease transmission during this era, the Church often attributed illnesses to ‘divine retribution’ for leading a sinful life.

Treatments and Medicine Explored

Medicine was not really an evolved profession during the medieval period. Whatever the physicians did was based on limited knowledge of local plants and herbs and some other experience-based learnings. Not everyone could afford a physician either.

The poor had to rely on traditional herbal remedies and superstitions to address their illnesses, while the affluent could afford the services of physicians. However, the engagement of a physician did not guarantee a successful recovery, as the effectiveness of treatments often relied on luck, and many of the remedies seem peculiar to contemporary perspectives.

A prevailing belief of the time posited that the body harbored four ‘humours,’ and an imbalance among them could lead to illness. The examination of a patient’s urine was a common method to ascertain such imbalances. Remedies to restore equilibrium included bleeding (with or without leeches), induced sweating, and vomiting.

In the event that an unfortunate patient needed an operation or amputation during the Middle Ages, the procedure would be conducted by a ‘surgeon,’ frequently someone with a background as a butcher or barber. Shockingly, these procedures were performed without anesthesia. Compounding the risk, the lack of sterilization for surgical instruments meant that post-operative infections were not uncommon and, sadly, often proved fatal.


Life in medieval times was plagued with different diseases, making it a challenging life for people. While there was little awareness about medicine and medical science had hardly evolved, the lifestyle of people, especially the lower class, only furthered the risk of the spread of diseases.

Aspects like open sewers, widely spread dung, and throwing of carcasses in the open resulted in viruses being spread by flies and rodents easily. Unhygienic practices also added to the situation. Wars and combats that injured many severely also added to the misery as they were not treated well enough to survive on many occasions. While all this did make medieval times a tough period to live in, the resilience of people showed that humans could survive and thrive in the most adverse situations as well.

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