Fans of Game of Thrones will be familiar with the painkiller ‘Milk of the Poppy’ a powerful drug in the fantasy series. Some of the show is based on medieval history and strange as it may sound medieval opium based drugs are not complete fiction. While medieval medicine was rudimentary at best opiates were available.
Medieval doctors held strange ideas about biological and healthcare. Their ideas about how our bodies functioned were completely incorrect. They believed that disease was caused by an imbalance in what were called the humors or liquids in the body that regulated our health.
There were four humours in all – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. In a healthy body these were carefully balanced. Treating many illnesses revolved around restoring what a doctor thought was an imbalance in the humours. While this sounds somewhat ludicrous it dominated medical thinking well into the 19th century.
However on occasion they discovered effective remedies by accident. For example for thousands of years our ancestors have practiced a form of brain surgery – trepanation (right). While this was effective in releasing pressure on the brain they did not understand how or why it worked.
There are also many natural remedies which are effective for example clove oil is still used on sore teeth today. Unsurprisingly once the pain relieving properties of opiates were discovered this was not easily forgotten.
Opium based painkillers
The ancient Greeks had discovered the powerful properties of opium as pain reliever by the second century B.C.E. Over the following centuries opium was imported into Europe from Western Asia and used as a medicine.
While it was consumed orally in many forms – theriac was the most common. Theriac was a mixture of multiple ingredients. Some of these ingredients had medicinal properties but others were included to balance the humours. The use of alcohol and wine may have helped to increase the potency of opium as a sedative, however the inclusion of pepper and rose water had a limited impact.
By the late medieval period theriac was generally regarded as the most potent of cure available. Such was its effect some considered it to be imbued with magical properties. In the 14th century it was widely regarded as one of the best treatments for the Black Death. However while it might have eased the pain it can have done little to determine whether a patient lived or died.
Theriac was addictive given the opium in the substance and was regulated in the Kingdom of France perhaps for this reason. The potential for people to become addicted was limited given its rarity. Indeed most could never afford afford the numerous rare and dear ingredients that were used to make theriac. While I have not found a reference to theriac from late medieval Ireland given the island’s trade with Europe during this period, its inconceivable it was not used here.
Upcoming tour offer
On August 15th I am organising a new day-trip visiting three sites well off the beaten track. The current plan is
- Leave Dublin at 10 a.m. by private coach.
- Head for CastleRoche, a medieval frontier fortress situated in Co Louth
- Then cross country to Loughcrew, a fascinating series of passage tombs similar Newgrange which predate the pyramids.
- Then will return by way of Monasterboice, an early Irish monastery with some of the best examples of Irish high crosses.
While the tickets will cost €45 there is a limited introductory offer of only €35 for the entire day. To avail of this book your seat now at firstname.lastname@example.org