Medicine, Magic, and Music

The practice of medicine in the Middle Ages was largely based on proto-scientific methods from the ancient observations and writings of Hippocrates (from whom modern doctors get the Hippocratic oath) and Galen. Galen, in particular, wrote extensive case studies about sickness and the treatments he used, in addition to general treatises on biological disciplines like anatomy.

Before the widespread cultural acceptance of human dissection, knowledge of biology was admittedly limited. The medieval understanding of health, however, made up for this lack of scientific data by developing a wholistic understanding of the human body and emphasized balance of the four bodily humors through diet, sleep, and exercise.

These four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—gave rise to four personality types, and were thought to be connected to elements in nature like the four elements, the four seasons, and the four cardinal winds. All things in nature had a unique mixture of “fourness,” and existed on a temperature/moisture spectrum between hot-cold and wet-dry. Sickness and disease occurred when these elements became unbalanced and out of harmony with the rest of the universe.   

1. black bile
2. yellow bile
3. blood
4. phlegm
1. melancholic
2. choleric
3. sanguine
4. phlegmatic
1. earth
2. fire
3. air
4. water
1. autumn
2. summer
3. fall
4. winter

Learned physicians and infirmarians wrote books on the medicinal properties of plants and animals and how to treat common illnesses. A fascinating example is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who ran the infirmary at the monastery, Disibodenberg, Germany before becoming the abbess of her own monastery in 1150. She was a prolific writer of both medical tracts and music.

The following expert from Hildegard’s Physica tells of the uses of cinnamon in mulled wine to treat fever, or as a powder to treat a head-cold.

 “Cinnamon is very hot and its power is great. It holds a bit of moisture, but its heat is so strong that it suppresses that dampness. It diminishes bad humor in one who eats is often, and provides him with good humors. 

 The tree whose bark is cinnamon is very hot. Whence, a person who is paralyzed by gout, or who has … a fever should pour good wine into a steel vessel. He should put into it wood and leaves of this tree, while they still have sap in them. 

 After boiling it on a fire, he should drink it frequently, hot. He will be healed. One whose head is heavy and dulled, and who has difficulty breathing through the nose, should pulverize cinnamon and eat it often with a morsel of bread, or licked from his hand. It dissolves the noxious humors which had dulled his head].[1] 

Hildegard also wrote over over 77 songs for performance in religious services, many of which describe sin as a disease or wound upon the body. In the following example, O clarissima, she describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “the mother of a holy medicine.”

Click here for the full lyrics and a recording of this song:

Other famous medieval herbals and medicinal texts come from England, such as Bald’s Leechbook. These texts frequently mixed the scientific and religious learning written in Latin with folk practices in the local languages (Anglo-Saxon). Sometimes the languages became a bit muddled when mixed together, resulting in a curious synchronization of musical-medicinal rituals. For example, the treatment for a parasite like a worm involves singing this charm 9 times in the ear of the victim (left ear for a female, right ear for a male).

Gonomil orgomil marbumil, Marbsairamum tofeð tengo, Docuillo biran cuiðær, Cæfmiil scuiht cuillo scuiht, Cuib duill marbsiramum.

After singing the charm, recite one Paternoster (Our Father) prayer, and smear spittle, green centaury, and hot cow’s urine on any visible wound. Then you should be good to go: no more worms. The herb centaury (centaurium erythraea) was known by several other names like feverwort or Christ’s Ladder, and was used to treat fevers, snake-bites and poisons, and gout.

The ick-factor of saliva and urine for the modern imagination is difficult to overcome, but they functioned well in several medieval everyday chores. Urine has a compound, urea, that breaks down into ammonia and has been used as a household cleaner for centuries. Fans of the historical-fantasy TV show, Outlander, may recall watching the heroine from the 1940s travel back in time to 18th century Scotland, where she learns to pee in a bucket to wash her clothes.

Salvia, on the other hand, contains water, electrolytes, mucus, and enzymes. Some of these enzymes kill bad bacteria that could cause infections, and proteins (like histatin) feed good bacteria which, you guessed it, helps to fight infections and close wounds. The chemical opiorphin in salvia is a natural pain killer, even stronger than morphine. Scientists think that this is the reason why mouth wounds heal much faster than anywhere else in the body. And this is why animals lick their wounds.[2]  

The singing in this curative practice is even more curious. The words are nonsensical, not a real language, so scholars think that these “magic words” are the result of misinterpretation—what happens when one hears an exotic or unknown language, but not knowing the language, the reproduction is a little off. An example that we have incorporated into our culture today is a phrase that often occurs at Halloween: hocus pocus. These magic words are a result of hearing the Latin Mass performed without knowing that “hoc est corpus” chanted by a priest during communion means “this is the body.”

Strictly speaking, music therapy is a modern invention to cope with mental, emotional, and even physical distress or illness, but the ancient world also believed that certain kinds of music had the power to influence the body and the mind. The ancient Indian practice of chanting mantras to calm the mind in spiritual rituals have become very popular in non-religious contexts today such as sports. Many athletes design their own mantras, short repeated phrases, as psychological tools to help them perform more effectively. Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks shared his mantra “why not you?” with his team, and it became “why not us?” They eventually won the 2014 Superbowl.[3]

medieval Yoda or water-elf?

Scientific studies on the physiological effects of meditation on the brain has shown that mantras and meditation aide the growth of gray matter in several parts of the brain: the insula and sensory regions which control listening and feeling, and the frontal cortex which is responsible for memory and decision-making.[4] While mantras tend to be short phrases or single syllables, and Anglo Saxon charms have more complex lyrics, the act of singing may have the same impact of distracting or relieving the mind of anxiety and pain associated with sickness.       

Try this Anglo-Saxon charm the next time you catch water-elf disease:

Sing three times: 
Round the wounds I have wreathed the best of healing amulets, 
That the wounds may neither burn nor burst, 
Nor grow worse nor putrefy, 
Nor throb, nor be filthy wounds, 
Nor cut in deeply;
but let him keep the sacred water for himself, 
Then it will pain you no more than it pains the land by the sea.

Sing many times: “May Earth remove you with all her might and main.”

[1] Priscilla Thorpe, trans., Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998, p. 20.

[2] Tiwari, Manjul. “Science behind human saliva.” Journal of natural science, biology, and medicine vol. 2,1 (2011): 53-8. doi:10.4103/0976-9668.82322



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