District 186 || District School Sites || Teacher Resources

Elizabethan England

Elizabethan Medicine

by Andy Patterson and Bethany White

Medical practice in Elizabethan times, did not imporove as much as other aspects of Elizabethan life. Advancements were made, but overall the impact was not great.

Beliefs. All in all, medicine remained mostly medieval in Elizabethan times. Many physicians based their philosophies on the teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates. These beliefs were widely accepted during the Medieval period. However, the emphasis on magic and astrology diminished in Elizabethan times. Yet, some physicians still believed that if the planets were out of line, an individual would get sick, according to his or her own sign.

The strongest and most widespread belief was that of the four humours and four elements. The humours are bodily fluids, and the seat of all these fluids was thought to be the liver. The four humours are blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Supposedly the level of humours in the body characterized the personality. If a person had more blood in his body, he was characterized as having a sanguine personality. These people were very passionate, amorous, joyful, and kind. With abundance of phlegm, the personality was characterized as being phlegmatic or cowardly, unresponsive, and lacking in intellectual ability. Yellow bile meant that the person had a choleric personality. These people were generally believed to be obstinate, vengeful, impatient, and easily angered. Black bile meant that the person was melancholy or excessively brooding, gluttonous, and satiric.

There were also four elements that were thought to determine a person's personality and health. The four elements were air, water, earth, and fire. Air was the cold element, water the moist, earth the dry, and fire was the hot element. Belief in the humours took a long time to die out.

Elizabethan physicians also believed that certain gemstones held medicinal powers. Garnets were believed to keep sorrow at bay. Topaz and jacinth were used to alleviate anger. Emeralds and sapphires were thought to ease the mind.

The College of Physicians. The College of Physicians was founded in 1518, through the efforts of Thomas Linacre. The chairs of the board were professionals who were educated at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua. To be issued a license, a doctor had to have a mandatory university education. The College earned its right to do dissections on human corpses in 1565. These bodies were usually the bodies of convicted and executed criminals.

Cures. Cures were basically concoctions of several different herbs that were thought to be of medicinal value. These concoctions were usually home remedies or ones prescribed by "old wise women" and soothsayers. Those who could afford a doctor's care would fill their prescriptions at an apothecary.

Different ingredients and herbs would be used for different parts of the body. For instance, head afflictions were treated with sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage, and bay. Heart problems were remedied by plants such as saffron, basil, and rosemary. Stomach aches and other related sicknesses were treated with wormwood, mint, and balm. Lung afflictions such as pneumonia and bronchitis were treated by liquorice and comfrey, which is still used in bronchitis medicine today.

Renowned Physicians. The greatest physician of Elizabethan times was William Harvey (1578-1657). Harvey was educated at Caius College, Gonville, and Padua. Harvey first described the circulation of the blood. Although Harvey did not publish his findings until 1628, he spoke of his discovery in his lectures much earlier. Thomas Linacre (1460?-1524) founded the College of Physicians and later became the physician to Henry VII and Henry VIII. Linacre earned the title "restorer of learning" to England. This title was given mainly because he expressed a critical awareness that the writings of such authoritative figures as Galen should be translated and read accurately.

Hierarchy of Medical Professions. Physicians were not the only ones who provided medical care. They were, however, the only ones who had to be licensed according to the College of Physicians' rules, regulations, and guidelines. To acquire a physician's education and skill, one had to come from a family with at least a little wealth. Physicians could charge high fees, as they enjoyed a high professional status. The poor would have to rely on home remedies or medicine administered by charitable churches. The College of Physicians kept its standards high, but those physicians who practiced in the country had lower guidelines than those of city doctors.

Surgeons were considered to beinferior to physicians. They usually operated on a physician's instruction. The surgeons tended to have a bad reputation, mainly because they shared company with barbers.

Though surgeons were usually more knowledgeable than barbers, they all belong to a group called the Company of Barber Surgeons. Even though barbers belonged to the same Company as the surgeons, they were not allowed to practice much besides blood-letting and tooth-pulling.

The last rung on the ladder that was the medical profession of Elizabethan times was the apothecary, or dispenser of drugs. The apothecaries came to be known as the physician's cook and were associated with grocers because they were essentially just that. Apothecaries also endured bad reputations at times. Some were not so ethical in their distribution of medicine. Often they would sell fraudulent prescriptions or miracle cures that a country bumpkin would pay hard-earned money for. In 1616, apothecaries received a Royal charter to practice independently without physicians checking up on them.

Diseases. The main cause for disease in Elizabethan England was probably the lack of sanitation. The streets of cities, towns, and villages were unadulterated cesspools. There were open sewers in the streets, which were also used as community garbage cans. This kind of atmosphere was the perfect breeding ground for rats, lice, fleas, viruses, diseases, and germs, all of which were common problems. One of the biggest killers of Elizabethan times was the Plague, or "Black Death," a disease carried by rats who bred in the dregs of the sordid streets. Typhoid, a disease that was spread by improper sanitation, was also a problem.

A second cause may have been the diet, or lack thereof, of many Elizabethan people. The rich frequently got gout; their diet primarily consisted of meat and not many fruits and vegetables. Many of the residents of rural Elizabethan England were probably malnourished and suffered diet-related ailments. Scurvy, a disease that results from the lack of vitamin C in the body, was common. Toothaches were also a common, more minor problem. These afflictions were cared for by the barbers.

A tertiary cause for disease was the exploration of the world. The explorers brought more than just tales, spices, riches, and knowledge. They brought back with them diseases like smallpox and syphilis, diseases which could be passed from person to person by physical contact or drinking or eating after someone.

In conclusion, Elizabethan medicine was not very advanced. Old beliefs overshadowed the knowledge of new discoveries about the human body. However, the medical profession advanced through the establishment of standards and a common board by which the public could benefit.

See also "Medical Beliefs and Practices of Elizabethan England"

Works Consulted

Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare in His Time. London: Nelson Ltd., 1967.

This book describes Shakespeare's life and times. Several pages tell of some common ailments of the population. The book would have been a better resource for a report on Shakespeare.

*Burton, Elizabeth. The Pageant of Elizabethan England.New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, Inc., 1958.

This book is informative about the life of Elizabethan people. The chapter entitled "Of Ailments and Their Cure" specifically gives information about the ailments that afflicted Elizabethan people, and the herbs that were used to treat them. However, the chapter leans more toward the illnesses of Queen Elizabeth herself; therefore it was not the most informative book to use on the research of the general population's illnesses.

"History of Medicine." The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.knight.org./advent/cathen/10122a.htm, (25 Nov. 1997).

The Catholic Encyclopedia is an informative website. The section called "History of Medicine" was where we found information on Elizabethan medicine. The article chronicles different schools, periods, and people pertaining to medicine.

*Lyons, Albert S., and R. Joseph Petrucelli II. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Aberdale Press, 1978.

This book is a wonderful resource. It begins with the earliest prehistoric medicine and chronologically summarizes the history of medicine to present date. The section entitled the "Fifteenth Century" is especially informative. The book also contains great illustrations, one of which is featured in this report.

"Medicine, Renaissance." The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

This article is short yet gives some names of prominent physicians who were contemporaries of this period. This information allowed other references to be pursued.

*Mountfield, David. Everyday Life in Elizabethan England. Geneve: Editions Minerva,1978.

This book gives a wide scope of what people did in Elizabethan times in England. The book also has many interesting pictures, also featured in the report. The chapter called "Science and Medicine" was the best chapter to find information about diseases and cures.

*Source for Visuals


Historical Figures and Events /Everyday Life /Arts and Architecture /
Shakespeare and His Theatre/About this Site / Links