Tag Archives: Medieval medicine

Emperor Frederick II and His Scientific Pursuits

Frederick II’s Scientific Pursuits

Frederick II and his falcon. From his book De ...

Frederick II and his falcon. From his book De arte venandi cum avibus (The art of hunting with birds). From a manuscript in Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071), late 13th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As stated in my previous articles, Frederick studied many of the subjects that interested Aristotle, but it seemed that Frederick was especially interested in astronomy, astrology, geography, zoology, medicine, and human anatomy.   Piero della Vigna, a member of the Sicilian school of poets, remarked that Frederick had friars forming maps into globes, tracking the sun’s course through the zodiac, squaring circles, and converting triangles into quadrilaterals.  As discussed previously, Frederick sent questions of astronomy and astrology to the sultans of the east, gaining two astronomers for his own court and a planetarium for his collection.  Frederick was also interested in medicine and human anatomy.  Of particular interest to Frederick was the hygiene of crusading armies.  The correlation between hygiene and disease prevention was unknown at the time.  In fact, Frederick’s insistence on a Sunday bath was outright scandalous.  Frederick’s first crusade was stalled when Frederick fell sick.  Some hypothesize that the illness was faked because Frederick did not want to go, but his interest in disease prevention leads me to believe that he actually became very ill, so ill that he was inspired to find out how to keep crusading armies safe from disease.    Somehow Frederick made the connection between hygiene and the spread of disease.  In 1227, Adam, chanter of Cremona wrote a treatise on the hygiene of crusading armies and dedicated it to the emperor.  Theodore also examined the subject of hygiene.   Frederick also paid careful attention to his own hygiene in terms of bathing and bloodletting.

It could easily be argued that Frederick’s love of zoology, especially the study of hunting with falcons, surpassed his love of any other subject.  In 1231, Frederick brought a menagerie of animals unknown to most Italians including elephants, dromedaries, camels, panthers, gerfalcons, lions, leopards, white falcons, and bearded owl.  Five years prior, he took a similar collection to Parma. In 1245, during Frederick’s travels, the monks of Santo Zeon not only kept Frederick and his entourage, they also had to accommodate an elephant, five leopards, and the 24 camels that Frederick used when crossing the Swiss Alps.  His menagerie wowed the untraveled population of Germany, of which Frederick was the first person to bring a giraffe.

Frederick particularly enjoyed studying birds and horses, possibly inspired by his love of hunting.  He was well versed in Aristotle’s De Animalibus, which he utilized when composing his treatise on ornathology called De Arte Venandi cum Anivabis, which studies the anatomy and behavior of birds .  Frederick also commissioned a volume on the treatment of ailments afflicting horses.  It was very popular and translated into a variety of languages.

Frederick II’s Strange Experiments

13th century anatomical illustration showing t...

13th century anatomical illustration showing the circulation of blood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As mentioned earlier, Frederick was interested in the workings of the human body and unafraid to conduct unethical experiments to see if his hypotheses were true.  On one occasion, Frederick invited two men to dinner, feeding them very well.  He took on one the hunt and had the other sent to bed.  Both men were murdered and then disemboweled so Frederick could determine if digestion was better aided by exercise or rest.  His examiner determined that the man who had napped, digested his meal better.

Frederick also took an interest in linguistics.  Frederick sought to discover the natural language that children would speak, and hoped that in doing so he would discover the language Adam and Eve used when talking with God.  In order to discover this, Frederick took a group of infants from nearby orphanages and had them raised by nurses who never held or spoke with the children.  According to Slimbene Di Adam who recorded the experiments in his treatise  entitled  Chronicles, the infants were nursed, kept warm, and bathed, but never spoken to.  The hypotheses ranged from Greek to Hebreow, and Latin to the language of God.  Unfortunately for Frederick and these poor children, None of them ever spoke and not a single child lived past the age of two.

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Cleft Lip in the Middle Ages

I find out so many interesting Medieval tidbits doing the research for The Fairytale Keeper series.  Today, I want to share what I’ve learned and concluded based on my research on cleft lip in the Middle Ages.

cleft lip hare lipCleft Lip Defined

Approximately 1 in 700 children in the US are born with a cleft lip or palette. Cleft lip is a split in the upper lip that, in normal development, fuses together around the 35th day of fetal development.  A cleft palate is when the split also occurs in the roof of the mouth.

Cleft Lip in the Middle Ages

Cleft lip certainly occurred during The Middle Ages, but to what extent, we do not know.

Difficulty breast feeding is a common complication of cleft lip and palette.  One wonders how many children died as a result of their inability to feed correctly.  When a child with a cleft lip breast feeds, he can have trouble getting enough suction, milk can leak out the nose, and choking can occur.

Medieval Peasant Field WorkingThe majority of the Medieval population was poor and worked long hours in fields.  They didn’t have money to pay a wet nurse to drip feed a child who couldn’t latch on, and they wouldn’t have had the time to experiment with different methods of feeding.  Most people, during the time period, lived in small villages and never ventured 20 miles from home.  It seems a likely conclusion that most people would have never seen a cleft lip or palette during their lifetimes; therefore, it seems unlikely that a treatment for the deformity and its complication would have been widely-known.  But, perhaps, my speculations are wrong.

We do know that some people made it to adulthood with cleft lip because it’s documented that Arab physician, Albucasis used a different surgery method on adults than he did with children.

Medieval Treatment of Cleft Lip

Portrait of Arab Physician Abulcasis

We do see evidence of treatments for cleft lip in the Middle Ages. The following is an Anglo-Saxon treatment for cleft lip, referred to it as harelip,  mentioned in Bald’s Leechbook.  ‘For harelip: pound mastic very fine, add white of an egg and mix as you do vermilion, cut with a knife, sew securely with silk then anoint with the salve outside and insde before the silk rot.  If it pulls together, arrange it with the hand, anoint again immediately.’

As mentioned earlier, famous Medieval Muslim physician, Albucasis, and his fellow surgeons had more than one treatment for cleft lip.  They preferred cauterizing with gold to cutting with a scalpel when treating adults.  In the cases of young children, they realized that hot metal was too harsh and opted for surgery instead. The surgery involved making a small incision in the lip, placing a garlic clove in the gap, and leaving it for 15 hours. After removing the garlic, the gaps were sealed with a bandage that had been dipped in butter.

These, however, were not the first documented treatments.  In 390 BCE, a physician who was well-known for successfully mending cleft lips performed surgery on 18 year-old Wey Young-Chi in Nanking, China. The surgery was successful, and after his surgery, Wey Young-Chi joined the army.  He later became a governor.

Article written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s fairytales.  To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit:

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