Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount

I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)

I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.

Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.

Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.

The Midwife’s Apprentice By Karen Cushman Book Summary and Review

Content Note: Discussions of abuse and spoilers for The Midwife’s Apprentice.

Usually, I don’t do book reviews here (I think I may have written two before) but I figured I would spice things up today before returning to my usual content! Today I will be reviewing the children’s book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.

The Book’s Summary:

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a story about a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl living in medieval England. (The narration never specified her age as the girl doesn’t even know how old she is.) At first, the girl is nameless, only going by “Brat.” We are introduced to Brat as she crawls into a dung pile to sleep. Brat is a homeless, wandering orphan trying to get out of the cold. She also goes into the dung pile to hide from some boys who are tormenting her.

The boys do find her and start tormenting Brat, giving her a new name: Beetle. (As in dung beetle.) They are chased away by a woman who asks Beetle if she is dead because if she is dead the woman has to get the bailiff to take her body away. Beetle opens her eyes, revealing that she is in fact alive. This woman is Jane Sharp and she is the local midwife. She tells Beetle she’ll feed her and give her a place to sleep if she works for her. Hungry, not wanting to sleep in the dung pile anymore or venture off to another village to beg, Beetle accepts and becomes Jane’s servant and eventual apprentice.

However, Jane is not doing this out of the kindness of her heart. Jane is a cruel woman who not only torments Beetle but her patients as well. She is verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive to pretty much everyone she interacts with. Jane also refuses to go to women who can’t pay her hefty fees, often causing women to have to give birth with no help, other than their local neighbors. While Jane isn’t a professionally trained midwife as it’s the Middle Ages and the knowledge was passed down from woman to woman, she does know her stuff. What I’m saying is, women died in childbirth all the time and if something goes horribly wrong you want someone there who knows what they are doing even if they are a horrible human being. To make matters worse for her patients, Jane is the only midwife in the area and if you want a lesser chance of dying in childbirth, unfortunately, you have to put up with her.

Jane looks down upon Beetle and treats her horribly. She thinks Beetle is an idiot and abuses her physically and emotionally at every chance she gets. However, Beetle is not as stupid as Jane and the others in the village make her out to be. The more work she does for Jane, the more and more she learns. Soon enough Beetle has memorized Jane’s medical recipes and can make them on her own. This gives Beetle a sense of freedom.

Over the course of the book, Beetle starts to become her own person. She makes friends, gets some revenge on people who have wronged her, rescues a few boys, and overall has quite a few adventures. Eventually, she decides to rename herself Alyce. At first, no one will call her Alyce, but as time goes by more and more people do. Soon enough Alyce is loved and even more respected than Jane due to the kindness she gives patients that have been abandoned by the older midwife. (After all, Jane has absolutely no qualms with leaving patients and their babies to die if someone richer has just gone into labor.)

Despite the respect Alyce gets, she is still young and does not know everything. After a patient’s baby gets stuck, Alyce panics and Jane has to come to the rescue. Alyce, ashamed that she could not help, gives up midwifery. She runs away from the village and starts working as a servant at a somewhat far off inn.

There at the inn, Alyce learns more practical life skills and even learns to read and write thanks to the lessons of a traveling scholar. At one point Jane visits the inn but doesn’t see her. While Jane is telling the scholar about midwifery, Alyce overhears her complaining about her. Jane is annoyed with Alyce and basically says she needs an apprentice who won’t give up at the slightest hint of trouble. Babies don’t stop being born just because the midwife has a personal crisis. (Which, as much as I do not like Jane, is true.)

Time goes on and Alyce still works at the inn as a servant. She has absolutely no intention of returning to midwifery but then something happens: a woman has come to the inn who is in labor! At first, no one in the woman’s traveling party can believe it because 1) no one knew she was pregnant (least of all herself!) and 2) she and her husband thought they were barren. But after the innkeeper feels the woman’s stomach she tells them that she is most certainly pregnant and the pain is not from a stomach worm. The husband is totally in denial and basically says “No, she’s not pregnant. I mean, yeah, my wife has gotten really fat lately but that’s because she won’t stop eating. I’m not a father!!!”

But the woman is pregnant and she’s in labor and the baby is coming now.

At first, the innkeeper helps her but soon enough she’s doesn’t know what to do. All this time Alyce has been watching but not saying anything. Alyce has been too terrified of screwing up again to help. But eventually, she knows she has to. Alyce comes to the rescue and the baby is safely delivered. It is only when Alyce is able to help the woman does she realize that she is meant to be a midwife. She returns to Jane, who won’t have her at first. But Alyce remembers what Jane said previously: she needs someone who doesn’t give up. Alyce pesters Jane for a while and eventually, she is let back in to continue her training. This is where the book ends.

The Book Review:

I enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I thought it was a good book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads. It’s a pretty short book so I finished it within a day. (It’s a children’s book so of course, it’s short.) The story is well written and Alyce is a likable character. Admittedly, she’s a bit bland at first. At the start of the book, she’s extremely timid and not very interesting. However, her shyness is due to the fact she has spent the entirety of her life (or at least the life she remembers) in a world that neglects and abuses her. After all, she has no family, no money, no home, and no name. So it’s extremely satisfying to watch her become her own person and gain the confidence that comes with realizing she is capable, worthy of love, respect, and she’s not just a burden like the world has told her her entire life.

And Alyce finally choosing her own name is something I can really relate to. The moment she does so was extremely touching.

Karen Cushman does a fantastic job of making Jane extremely unlikable. I absolutely hated Jane. (However, that is the point of her character.) Jane is abusive to everyone around her and to add to how horrible of a person she is, she’s also having an affair with a man who has a wife and thirteen children! Her character also shows that even the people you are supposed to trust won’t always (if ever!) have your best interests in mind. It’s an important lesson for kids to learn that sometimes you can’t trust your doctors, especially when it comes to childbirth. There are so many cases out there of doctors and midwives refusing to listen to or flat out abusing their laboring patients (especially women of color). While The Midwife’s Apprentice takes place in medieval England, the fact that patient abuse is still extremely dominant today is important for kids to learn about so they can protect themselves in the future.

In other reviews I’ve read of The Midwife’s Apprentice, people have a lot of issues with Alyce returning to her abuser at the end of the book. Her return is definitely problematic, but I understand why she did so. Jane is the only person Alyce knows who has the knowledge she needs to be a proper midwife. While her return is not ideal at all the ending does have a lot of hope to it. It’s stated throughout the book that Jane is terrified of another midwife taking her business and at one point Alyce does take her patients. Hopefully, once Alyce has learned all she can from Jane she will be able to leave for good and take care of the village’s parents instead of Jane.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I think it’s an excellent book and I recommend it for children and adults alike.

Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)

In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.

The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.

Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.

[…]

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons.
The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man—
then Woden took up nine glorious boughs,
striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces.
There the apple and the venom were destroyed,
so that it never wished to bring down your house.

Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair,
the wise Lord shaped these herbs,
holy in heaven, those he hung up—
set up and sent down into the seven worlds
for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away.
Garmund, the thane of God,
find those cattle and bear those cattle
and keep those cattle and hold those cattle
and bear those cattle home.

(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)

***

Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.

Sources:

Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html