On 2nd November 2013 I wrote a post for this blog entitled “Three reasons Why You Shouldn’t Travel Back in Time.” And maybe I should have called this post “Another Three Reasons Why Time Travel Isn’t a Good Idea.” I don’t know why I’m fixated on this subject perhaps because Outlander is airing here in Canada. For those of you who don’t know the storyline (Although I can’t believe there’s someone out there who hasn’t heard of it.) It’s about a woman who accidently travels back in time to the eighteenth century Scottish Highlands. Now, I have to admit I don’t know much about Scotland in the time period of Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous novel, but I do study the middle ages and trust me you don’t want to go there.
Anyway without further ado I will list another three reason why you shouldn’t travel back in time to the middle ages.
To be honest, I don’t know that medieval healers were as ignorant as the movies would have us believe. I do think that people had a basic understanding of cleanliness. Everyone washed their hands before eating, and many towns had communal bathhouses, although these weren’t places a respectable woman would frequent, it does indicate that bathing was more common than we’ve been led to believe. And there is evidence that some patients did undergo primitive forms of surgery such as: trepanning (Cutting a hole in the patients skull to relieve inflammation) This is a procedure that actually has scientific relevance but without modern equipment, reliable anesthetics and antibiotics there can’t have been a very good chance of survival and you would think it would be a last resort but there are cases where it was used to treat epilepsy, migraines, and depression.
The problem is that even though medieval physicians wanted to heal the sick they lacked a basic understanding of how diseases were spread and had little or no understanding of how the human body worked. It wasn’t unusual for a physician to examine, smell and taste the patient’s urine. (Yes, taste urgh!) This is an era where a common cure for hemorrhoids was a hot poker to the affected area. Talk about cures that kill.
There are estimates that put mortality rates for medieval women and children as a result of childbirth as high as 20%. But I don’t see how these figures could be accurate as surviving medieval records are spotty at best. There is a paper by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that shows the mortality rates for mothers in 19th century until the early 20th century somewhere between 1% and 6%. This is an age where trained physicians attended births, and there was a greater understanding of medicine as we see it today, and still 6% of women died. As far as I can ascertain in the middle-ages doctors rarely attended births. The midwife would rub the mother’s stomach and genitalia with oil and bloodletting at the ankle was a common treatment to hasten delivery. (And you’d hope she used a clean knife)
Contrary to what you might believe during the medieval period a midwife was generally considered a respectable member of the community. Her word was respected in the courts and because so many mothers and children died in childbirth she was able to deliver last rites. But still how many women would want to go back to a time where childbirth was lethal and even if the mother survived there was a good chance her child would die before his fifth birthday. As a mother myself that idea upsets me.
As I said in my last post most of you would have been peasants or villains, at least ninety percent of the population worked the land and paid their lord for the privilege in either work or service. Their daily life was grim and shaped by backbreaking labour, hunger, and mistreatment. Their living conditions improved after the Black Death (I’ll be going into this in more detail in next week’s post.) But for the majority of the medieval period they carried the burden of working the land and providing food not just for themselves but for the nobility too.
Although, not all peasants were created equal some were freemen, they didn’t have to ask their lord permission to marry, travel, and most importantly they had the right to bear arms.
Whereas, the unfree had to stay and work their lords land. They could be put in chains to prevent them from running away and his lord had the right to exercise corporal punishment over him. This last point is pretty scary when you consider the fact that most lords were murderous thugs who thought nothing of murdering innocent women and children.
There you have it another three reasons we should be thankful that Outlander is a work of fiction.