Illustration of a monk tending to a sick patient.

The Incredible Medical Interventions of the Monks of Soutra Aisle

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Soutra Aisle refers to a set of ruins in Scotland that were once part of a larger complex comprising a hospital and a friar. Excavations at Soutra Aisle have provided an extraordinary window into the lives of the Augustinian monks that resided there, including their vast array of medicinal treatments from pain killers, to appetite suppressants, parasite killers, labor induction concoctions, and hangover cures. With new discoveries still being made, Soutra Aisle is a very important site for the understanding of medieval medical practice.

Apart from their religious duties, the monks of the Middle Ages had a variety of tasks to do each day. These include the planting of their own grains and vegetables, the production of wine, ale and honey, the copying of manuscripts, and the provision of medical care for the sick. The hospital at Soutra Aisle, along with the friary, was collectively known as the House of the Holy Trinity . The archaeological investigation of this site has provided us with an insight into the way this medieval hospital functioned during its heyday.

The remains of the medieval hospital of Soutra Aisle.

Reconstruction of the medieval hospital of Soutra Aisle built from stones found on site. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Soutra Aisle hospital

The medieval hospital of Soutra Aisle is located on top of a hill known as Soutra Hill, which is located in the Scottish Borders, near the boundary between Scotland and England. Additionally, the hospital was located on the ‘King’s Highway’, the main road from Scotland to England that followed the line of Dere Street, a major Roman road. The hospital was founded in 1164 by the Scottish king, Malcolm IV, and was under the Augustinian order of monks. It has been pointed out that unlike many other monasteries founded during this period, the one at Soutra was established for the following specific aims: to treat the sick, to provide hospitality to travellers, to give alms to the poor, and to provide legal sanctuary. It has been speculated that during its heyday, the site housed around 300 people (monks and servants) on a permanent basis to cope with the large amount of people seeking rest, or needing medical treatment.  

One of the most important, not to mention dangerous, archaeological discoveries at the medieval hospital of Soutra Aisle is the medical waste left behind over the centuries by the patients treated there. In 15 trenches dug on the ¾ of a square mile site, archaeologists were able to identify medical waste, defined as having the following three criteria – blood, lead, and certain common drug plants used only for medical purposes. Due to the impermeable clay base of the area, the hill is constantly waterlogged, resulting in the preservation of archaeological material. In addition, fragments of pottery vessels were also unearthed at Soutra Aisle.

The remains of Soutra Aisle, viewed from the south

Reconstruction of part of the hospital at Soutra Aisle, viewed from the south (M J Richardson –Creative Commons license)

Medicinal treatments at Soutra Aisle

Analysis of the vessels retrieved at Soutra Aisle revealed that they were once used to store medicines such as a painkillers and general anaesthetics made from hemlock, henbane and opium poppy. A salve of opium and lard is said to have been used to been placed on dressings to cover up open wounds after surgery or amputation. The remains of amputated body parts, and dressings with human tissues attached are further evidence that the monks at Soutra Aisle carried out surgical procedures on their patients.

Medieval medicine. Detail of an illumination of ‘medicinae Canon’ of Avicenna

Medieval medicine. Detail of an illumination of ‘medicinae Canon’ of Avicenna ( Wikimedia Commons )

Parasite killers, appetite suppressants, and hangover cures

Among the remnants at Soutra Aisle, archaeologists also found a mix of tormentil – a herb with a high concentration of tannin, which was used to kill the eggs of parasitic worms, as well as alleviating diarrhoea and stopping internal bleeding. In addition, they found the remains of the plant Lathyrus linifolius, used as an appetite suppressant during times of crop failures and as a weight loss cure for the overindulged. There is also evidence that the Augustinian monks concocted a hangover cure from toxic plant seeds and liquids left over from salt-making, which would induce vomiting.

A monk sneaking a drink in the cellar. Illumination from a copy of ‘Li livres dou santé’ by Aldobrandino of Siena.

A monk sneaking a drink in the cellar. Illumination from a copy of ‘Li livres dou santé’ by Aldobrandino of Siena. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Labor induction and abortions

Another intriguing find at Soutra Aisle is the discovery of the remains of stillborn babies, and the presence of ergot fungus and juniper berries. The ergot fungus is a parasitic fungus that attacks cereal crops, and is now known to contain alkaloids, including ergometrine, which causes contractions of the uterus. Juniper berries are also said to have been referred to as a ‘uterine stimulant’. Therefore, it has been speculated that the combination of these two elements might have been used to help with childbirth, or abortion. As Augustinian monks were strictly forbidden to practise midwifery, it raises the possibility that this was either practised illegally by the monks at the hospital, or that female midwives were also working at Soutra Aisle.

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