Tudor Medicine

Tudor medicine was not very scientific. Doctors had to train in astrology as well as medicine as people still believed then that some illnesses were caused more by the influence of the stars than by germs and poor hygiene. The word influenza comes from "influence" and malaria means "bad air". People did not understand about germs.

During their training few doctors had the chance to study anatomy except from books.

Most people had no access to doctors, as they were very expensive. The best that poor people could hope for was to be treated by a herbalist or a wise woman. This was often better!

There were no anaesthetics, antibiotics or painkillers. If anyone needed to have an operation they would probably die from infection.

Barbers were also trained as surgeons.

One of the common treatments was bleeding. Sometimes a doctor would open a vein by cutting it to let out "bad blood". Sometimes they would put leeches on the skin. Leeches are blood-sucking creatures that attach themselves to the skin. When they have gorged themselves with blood they drop off.


Signs and Symptoms of Some Common Illnesses in Tudor Times


The plague swept through Europe several times during Mediaeval and Renaissance times. It was devastating, killing a large proportion of the population.
Patients first complain of chills. This is followed by a high temperature, and the patient begins to vomit. Soon the skin turns black as large boils appear. Death follows soon afterwards.
There were several treatments for the plague, none of which was effective. No one realised that rat fleas spread the plague. Hygiene and public health in Tudor times was very poor, and so rats were common.

Sweating sickness

This disease was also known Sudor Anglicus (English sweat) and men suffered more than women did. It first occurred in 1485 and there were 6 major epidemics during the 15th and 16th centuries. It has never reappeared.
Patients first suffer from a headache and a slight pain in the chest. Then they break out in a heavy sweat. Soon afterwards they develop a high temperature and a rash. Death may occur within hours.
Some people believed that patients should cross their arms across their chests so that air could not reach the armpits and cover themselves completely in blankets, but they must not get too hot. Although very thirsty patients should not drink anything as people who did always died.


This was a disease suffered by wealthy people. When people eat a very rich diet extra uric acid in the blood can't be broken down and excreted. This is deposited as crystals in the joints and causes swelling, especially of the big toes. Henry VIII is supposed to have suffered from this disease.


Scrofula is a type of tuberculosis affecting lymph nodes in the neck causing ulceration of the skin. It was once known as the King's Evil.


The symptoms of this disease, which is caused by lack of Vitamin C found in fresh fruit and vegetables, can take several months to appear.
Patients suffer from bruises, a rash, followed by sore and swollen gums. Then the teeth fall out. Internal bleeding causes joints to be painful. The disease can be fatal.
In Tudor times the rich were more likely to suffer because they did not eat vegetables. Scurvy was quite a common disease in Britain until about 1800.