Medicine in Tudor times was largely rooted in medieval superstition and folklore, based on the idea that health and disease were controlled by humours like blood, phlegm and bile. The Stuart period saw the beginnings of more scientifically minded research on medicine but little change in the day-to-day practice of medicine on members of the public. Medical instruments of the time were primitive and often brutal.
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Tudor- and Stuart-era physicians considered many ailments the result of an imbalance in the humours. Too much blood in the body, in particular, was thought to be unhealthy. In addition to using leeches to decrease blood levels, many doctors and surgeons would open a vein in the arm using a half-inch-long blade attached to a long handle, called a fleam. The process, called venesection, resulted in considerably more loss of blood than could be achieved in a short period of time with leeches.
In an era before antibiotics and disinfectants, infection and uncontrolled blood loss after surgical procedures were rife. Cauterisation was one of the few methods available to seal cut blood vessels and kill pathogens, and hot irons were often the tool of choice. The irons were heated until the tips glowed red, then used for everything from battlefield wounds to amputations, and even, horrifically, for severe haemorrhoids.
A clyster syringe was a device used during the early Tudor period to deliver enemas. Consisting of a metal tube with a funnel-like cupped opening on one end and a dull point with several small holes on the other end, it was inserted into the patient rectally. Liquid medicine or, more often, lukewarm water, was poured into the cupped end, and the contents were pumped into the patient's body by means of a plunger inserted into the top of the tube. Clysters were replaced with more modern bulb syringes during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Amputations have been performed successfully since ancient times but became more commonly employed as life-saving measures during the Tudor and Stuart periods, partly as a result of advances in battlefield medicine. After the soft tissue around the limb to be removed had been cut with a long, curved knife, a bow saw was used to cut through the bone quickly. Surgeons were encouraged to keep spare blades on hand in case the blade snapped during the middle of a procedure, as happened frequently.
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