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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 August 2005, 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK
The medical world of medieval monks
By Jane Elliott
BBC News

Soutra Aisle. Pic:Philip Coppens
All that remains of the hospital

Anaesthetics and disinfectants are thought to be a modern medical invention but evidence is coming to light that medieval doctors knew of them too.

Evidence found at the ancient Soutra Hospital site, in Scotland, suggests the medieval Augustine monks also knew 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.

Dressings have also been found, some still 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.


The hospital, high in the Lammermuir Hills, near Edinburgh, was dedicated to looking after the poor, travellers and pilgrims as well as the sick and infirm.

Dr Brian Moffat archeo-ethno-pharmocologist and director of investigations for the Soutra Project, studies clumps of seeds from the site.

We are in the unprecedented position to evaluate this system of medicine recipe by recipe - and ask, did all of it - or any of it - work?
Dr Brian Moffat

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.

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.

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

We began to think that the watercress was being used to ease scurvy
Dr Brian Moffat

"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."

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."

"They had noticed that scurvy is reversible if they took certain vitamins."


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.

Next to this they found the remains of the heel bone of a man.

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.

"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," he added.

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