Top 10 Most Horrible Medieval Surgeries and Medical Procedures

If today an eye surgery with laser is performed successfully on a daily basis, in the Middle Ages, medical procedures were horrible and rarely effective. The highest incidences of surgeries in ancient history, according to what artifacts suggest, seem to have taken place in South America (Bolivia, Peru etc.). Also, surgical practices evidence has been found in Europe, Asia, North America and some Pacific Islands. Here are some of the most horrific medical procedures in history:

10. Brain Surgery

The earliest known surgical procedure was conducted by the Neolithic people about 7000 years ago. The operation consisted of removing a piece of the skull to expose the dura mater (the tough fibrous membrane forming the outer envelope of the brain). If the dura mater was not penetrated, the patient had a fair to good chance of surviving – and in fact, archeological evidence of examined skulls showed various degrees of healing, indicating survival. No effective anesthetic was invented until after the turn of the 20th century, and then the medicine was dangerous at best. Surgical procedures had high mortality rates due to the severe bleeding.

9. Live Surgeries

While medicine was a rather esoteric science in the Middle Ages, people who needed surgery were often condemned to death even before undergoing it. Although some of the interventions proved saving, most of them actually killed the patients due to lack of anesthetics/analgesics, antibiotics and disinfectants, not to mention the terrible pain that the nervous system had to endure – causing fainting and trauma.

8. Deadly Anesthetic

Middle Ages hardly benefited from bright minds regarding medical science or health policies. The only substances used for pain relief in operations or other interventions were few poisons. Dubious mixtures of poisonous plants like hemlock and mandrake with wine were the only remedies for pain. If the dose was wrong, the patient died poisoned. Some potions that were used to relieve pain or induce sleep during the operation could be fatal. Such potion was made by mixing lettuce juice, gall boar, opium, henbane, hemlock juice and vinegar. This mixture was put into wine and then “offered” to the patient. Old English word used to describe this anesthetic potion was “dwale“. Even the hemlock juice of this mixture can be lethal, and although the anesthetic may have induce sleep to patient, there were high chances that he/she will not wake up at all.

7. Knives in Eye Cataract

Cataract surgery is not a very complicated intervention today, being performed with powerful lasers. In the Medieval period, one of the earliest operation tools for cataract involved a sharp knife or a thick sewing needle, used to push the cornea to the back of the eye, through the  eye globe. Only after the Arab techniques were brought to the European continent, eye operations considerably evolved.

6. Tube into the Urethra for Kidney Failure

If today a blockage of the urinary tract is solved with exploratory investigations such as ultrasound, antibiotics and catheters eventually,  in the Middle Ages the treatment was creepy. A metal rod was inserted up the urethra to remove the infection (usually caused by syphilis or stuck urine down the drain). Blocking urine in the bladder, mostly due to venereal diseases, kidney failure and kidney stones, was something quite common in a period not aware of antibiotics. Urinary catheter – a metal tube inserted into the bladder through the urethra – was first used in the 14th century. When the tube could not be inserted to remove the obstruction, other procedures were used, all equally painful and dangerous as the medical problem they tried to solve.

5. Hot Iron for Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are viewed somehow as an embarrassing health problem, that people are reluctant to speak about openly. In the Medieval Ages, if people were not prayed to St. Fiacre – protector against hemorrhoids – then they appealed to monks who cauterized blood vessels with a red hot iron. Treatments for various diseases of the Middle Ages included prayers to saints and protectors of people suffering from specific diseases. An Irish monk of the 7th century, St. Fiacre, was considered the healer of those suffering from hemorrhoids. The legend says he had been miraculously cured of this disease after sitting on a rock in his garden. The stone still exists and receives many visitors from among those who hope to find the cure.

4. Various Vintage Eye Surgeries

The first eye operation was recorded in India around 800 B.C. and was called Shastra-karma. It is described as follows: “The doctor warmed the patient’s eye with the breath of his mouth. He rubbed the closed eye of the patient with his thumb and then asked the patient to look at his knees. The patient’s head was held firmly. The doctor held the lancet between his fore-finger, middle-finger and thumb and introduced it into the patient’s eye towards the pupil, half a finger’s breadth from the black of the eye and a quarter of a finger’s breadth from the outer corner of the eye. He moved the lancet gracefully back and forth and upward. There was a small sound and a drop of water came out. The doctor spoke a few words to comfort the patient and moistened the eye with milk. He scratched the pupil with the tip or the lancet, and then drove the mucus or the infection towards the nose. The patient got rid of the mucus/pus/infection by drawing it into his nose. He then laid cotton soaked in fat on the wound and the patient stood still with the operated eye bandaged.”

3. Trepanning / Trephining

It involved drilling a hole into the skull in order to treat health problems related to diseases thought to be intracranial. Somewhat remarkably, there is evidence of the practice in prehistoric times, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and throughout the classical and Renaissance periods when the procedure was widely thought to cure epilepsy, migraines, and mental disorders. Both Hippocrates and Galen described the procedure. The 15th century painter, Hieronymous Bosch, depicts the removing of the ‘stone of madness‘ which, according to popular superstition, was a cause of mental illness, depression or stupidity. While such stones could be located anywhere in the body, they were most frequently thought to be located in the head. The last recorded case involved two men from Cedar City, Utah being prosecuted for performing a trepanation on an English woman with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, in 2000.

2. Medieval Abortion

Baby abortions were performed since the ancient times. As early as the 9th century B.C., Cambodian women underwent this terrifying operation. This was a really bad situation because the baby couldn’t be expelled until he/she was nearly full-termed – big enough to be massaged out of the womb prematurely before the skull being cracked. Blunt force trauma was used on the woman’s abdomen, beating the ab continuously until the baby was expelled piece by piece.

1. Surgeons on the Battlefield

Bow that could shoot arrows at distant was a widely used weapon in the Middle Ages, and this has created real problems for battlefield surgeons: how to remove arrows from the body of soldiers without killing them. Arrow tip was not necessarily part of the stick, but attached with wax. After the wax hardened, it became very tough, and as the arrow pierced the body the tip detached and remained inside. One of the invented solutions was the so-called spoon darts or arrow remover. The spoon was inserted in the wound and extract it without causing other problems due jagged, shredded living tissue. Such injuries were treated and cauterized: red hot iron was placed on the wound to close the broken blood vessels, thus preventing massive bleeding and infections. Cauterization was primarily used for amputations, everything being made sober (see old arrow remover and bullet screw).


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