Although contemporary physicians consider many medieval practices obsolete, alternative healers and a number of medical doctors view herbal healing as viable treatment. According to Mostly Medieval, medieval healers included physicians, monks and other folk healers. Herbal healing was different than it is in modern times. For example, medieval doctors followed the Doctrine of Signatures. Mostly Medieval explains that flower colour and a plant's characteristics revealed the plant's use for healing. Yellow flowers, such as dandelions, indicated useful properties for liver ailments, the symptoms of which include jaundice. Among the many herbs physicians applied were aloe, motherwort, fennel and comfrey. Healers used herbs to treats ailments from dysentery to pneumonia.
According to Fordham University's site for the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden, manuscripts dating to the tenth century mention frequent use of herbs in medieval daily life. People in the Middle Ages believed that plants had magical powers, and plants were used for medical purposes as well as for spells. While herbs are no longer widely considered magical, with perhaps the exception of a lucky four-leaf clover, herbalists and medical practitioners recommend herbs for a range of ailments.
Mostly Medieval describes the most common diseases in the medieval period. Included are dysentery, influenza, smallpox, stroke and heart attack. Physicians treated patients based on ancient Greek beliefs. Basically, illness was considered to be related to imbalances of blood and the other fluid humours of the body, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Once a doctor diagnosed the area of imbalance, he used herbs to restore balance to the patient's system.
In the Middle Ages, as now, healers used common plants to soothe ailments. Mostly Medieval records that medieval doctors followed a physician in ancient Greece who used aloe topically for wounds and hair loss, among other conditions. Aloe was prescribed as a laxative. Motherwort was used to treat depression and to increase contractions during labour. Medieval doctors used fennel for colic, to suppress appetite and to help lactating women. Healers applied boiled comfrey in a compress for broken bones.
Mostly Medieval describes the ways herbs were used to make potions and ointments and in amulets. Medieval physicians made potions by mixing herbs with ale, milk or vinegar. Doctors mixed herbs with butter for external uses, including nose bleeds, sunburn and dog bites. People in the Middle Ages believed that herbs in amulets served as charms against mental and physical diseases and ill fortune. Mostly Medieval lists some of the more unusual herbal healing techniques, including the use of St. John's Wort on Midsummer's Eve to cure fever. However, you had to find the St. John's Wort by accident on that day. If you could capture an insane person and tie a bag of buttercups around her neck, she would be cured. Making hoops from woodbine, under which children would pass, cured them of their ills. Healing freckles was a messy business. You had to secure blood from a bull or a rabbit and cover the freckles with the blood. If that procedure did not appeal, you could apply distilled walnuts.
Medieval healers grew herbs in their own gardens. When they did not have the option to grow their own herbs or needed one they were not cultivating, doctors foraged for wild regional herbs. According to Mostly Medieval, folk healers went the extra step to assure the effectiveness of their cures by picking the herbs at the right time. Harvesters faced south and plucked herbs at dawn for maximum potency.