The Elizabethan Era
Medicine and Alchemy
The medicinal practices and problems of the Elizabethan Era were very important to the people, although they are very different from those of today. There were many different beliefs and diseases, like the Plague. Medicine was not an exact science and was related to Alchemy (Chemistry). Here, some of the many practices and beliefs of the Elizabethan Era will be discussed.
One of the most widely known and important of the beliefs was the humours. It was believed that every living creature was composed of four elements, the humours. They were blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile), and melancholy (or black bile). It was believed that the overall total combination of these four elements determined the person’s characteristics. For example, a person with more blood than other humours was hot and wet in their nature, a person with more phlegm was cold and wet, a person with more choler was hot and dry, and a person with melancholy being the dominant humour was cold and dry. It was also believed that too much of a certain humour caused disease. That meant the removing or avoiding the dominant humour could cure any disease.
Removal could be done by eating corresponding foods. For example, if a person was phlegmatic in nature, that meant that he was cold and wet, he could be cured if he ate hot and dry foods. Medicines like pepper, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, watercress, and mustard would be useful to such a person. A fever, which was believed to have been caused by excess blood, could have been cured in two ways. One way was to eat cold and dry food, and the other was to have excess blood sucked out by leeches.
Another of the many popular beliefs was that every living thing put on Earth by god was for human use. He gave humans control over his creatures. All of them had certain roles, as food, medicine, etc. For example, cows were put on Earth to supply people with meat and milk, and wheat was there to supply bread. Everything on Earth was useful to humans.
Medicine in the Elizabethan Era was associated with many sciences. One of these includes Astrology. It was believed that all living creatures were associated with the stars. It was possible to read a persons past, present and future by the positions of the stars and planets. Therefore, if you were to go to a physician, one of the first things he would ask you was the date of your birth from which he would cast a horoscope. Next, he would ask you was where the illness began and he would cast another horoscope of the illness and relate it to the patient. He would also wish to know which part of the body was affected by the illness, because each part was related to a certain star sign or constellation, and he would bear in mind under which star sign each ingredient of certain medicines was under.
Alchemy (Early Chemistry) was another science closely related to medicine. Alchemy was the name given to this science in Latin Europe in the 12th century. It was a belief that the human body was closely related to the stars and the heavens. Over hundreds of years, the main goals of alchemists were to turn any metal into gold and discover an elixir which could cure all ills or lead to immortality. This magical elixir was called the philosopher’s stone. Alchemy was based on the belief that there are four basic elements – fire, earth, air and water – and three essentials – salt, sulfur and mercury. The metals gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy. The liquid metal, mercury, and the burning rock, sulfur, were also known. Many processes with these elements were known to alchemists. The art of alchemy was heavily spiritual. Alchemists were the first to try out different ideas and experiment with different elements, but because of their intense metaphysical and spiritual beliefs, they didn’t develop modern day scientific methods.
Alchemist studied alchemy for hundreds of years, but they didn’t succeed in fulfilling their goals, but over the years, they learned other very useful information. This information was the basis for modern day chemistry. For example, one of the earlier alchemists, Paracelsus, devised the concept of disease. He stated that it was not caused by the imbalance of the body, but by outside agents attacking the body. People didn’t believe him until hundreds of years later. Also, alchemists discovered many other substances, like alcohol, mineral acids, etc.
Alchemists learned many chemical processes in their quest for gold and eternal life. They learned how to melt metals, combine and separate them and many other useful things. They combined different metals with different salts, until finally, the manipulation of these minerals lead to the discovery of different mineral acids. The first acid discovered was probably nitric acid, made by distilling together potassium nitrate and vitriol or alum. Later, the sulfuric acid was discovered. The most difficult discovery was that of the hydrochloric acid. All of these acids are widely known and used today, even though they were discovered over 600 years ago.
In the Elizabethan Era, there were many practitioners of medicine. There were physicians, apothecaries, bonesetters, surgeons, midwives, cunning men and women, keepers, wives and mothers. These were all different, some were professional and some just knew cures to certain ills. Therefore, a sick person had many places to go for help. They could go to any of those and get help and people used all of these choices, but the amount of money they could spend limited their choices, as some practitioners charged for their help. But if a person didn’t have a lot of money, he still had many choices available. Almost every community had at least one of each type of practitioner.
Medicine was very important to Elizabethan England and was used widely. It played a major part in the life expectancy of people and was widely studied. It was one of the most important sciences of that era and still is today.
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