Date Published: 7 August 2005

Monastic Medicine in Scotland during the Middle Ages

Evidence recently found at the ancient Soutra Hospital site in Scotland, suggests the medieval Augustine monks had knowledge of anaesthetics, disinfectants, and how to amputate limbs, fashion surgical instruments, induce birth, stop scurvy and even create hangover cures.

The excavations at Soutra have also unearthed fragments of pottery vessels that were once used for storing medicines such as an analgesic salve made from opium and grease and treatment for parasitic and intestinal worms. Some of the dressings found at the site are still impregnated with salves or human tissues attached and the scientists have discovered a mixture of Quicklime (calcium oxide) which scientists believe was used as a disinfectant and a deodorant.

Dr Brian Moffat archeo-ethno-pharmocologist and director of investigations for the Soutra Project, studies clumps of seeds from the site. He said the scientists trawl literature of the period to try and identify remedies the herbs could have been used to create. They then search the site to find medical waste evidence to support their theories.

He said that, using these methods, they had made a number of extremely significant finds and are regularly turning up new evidence about how ailments were treated during medieval times.

"We reckon we have stumbled upon a means of reconstructing medical practices."

He said that the methods used were considered controversial by some archaeologists, because they do not find direct evidence of the medicine in use, but their findings were always corroborated by other experts.

Examples of findings:

Medieval Childbirth

When ergot fungus and juniper berry seeds were found at Soutra scientists were intrigued about their use. Searching the historical texts suggests they were used to help induce birth, despite a ban on men in holy orders assisting in any aspect of childbirth. There was a ban on men in holy orders from interfering in childbirth, so any pregnant woman was left in the hands of an experienced village woman, but this would have been unacceptable to certain powerful people who wanted their wife or daughter to be looked after by physicians.

Dr. Moffat said that:

"When we looked at the site we found the still-born bodies of malnourished babies nearby so it is impossible not to link them."

Medieval Dentistry

Another find revealed clumps of watercress lying close to a pile of teeth.

"There was no sign of forcible extractions on the tooth.
_So we searched the waste to see what might have been thrown out alongside the teeth and we found a small mass of watercress.
_We realised that watercress is very rich in vitamin C and we began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy.
_Then we found one of the medieval texts which said loose teeth can be 'fastened or secured' by eating watercress.
We consulted the World Health Organization who confirmed that a boost of vitamin C would stop teeth falling out from a bout of scurvy.


One of the exciting finds was of the abundance of hemlock in the drains. Scientists think the monks had used this as a painkiller before carrying out amputations. This theory was supported by a find of the remains of the heel bone of a man nearby.

Tony Busettil, regus professor of forensic medicine at Edinburgh University who corroborated the Soutra find, said the bone had ridges on it, which indicated that the man had walked on the side of his foot:

"It showed that the person appears to have had a limp so they could have been suffering from some sort of congenital palsy.
_Next to it they found evidence of very strong pain killers.

Dr Moffat said the monks' knowledge of herbs was so great it could be used to influence medicine today. He added that:

"You would not bother with strange plants at a monastery unless they were going to be used and these medieval brothers knew what to do. They knew more about plants than anyone alive today."

This has been widely reported by many UK media outlets including the BBC and The Scotsman.

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