When boiling up toads was just the thing for leprosy

Toads were boiled up with barley to make a medicine for lepers in medieval times.

Toads were boiled up with barley to make a medicine for lepers in medieval times. - Credit: Archant

Nature: Medieval lepers had to suffer terrible treatments, says Grace Coren

An elderly relative believed until the day she died that those suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer must have been wicked at some stage in the past to have earned such 'punishment'. This is a belief which was prevalent many centuries ago and it was particularly attached to those suffering from leprosy, described as 'a foul and pertinacious disease with virulent and deep tainting characters represented in the Holy Writ as appertaining to this dreaded and life corrupting malady'. By the nineteenth century leprosy had become 'a skin disease giving the appearance of scales of a fish arising from imperfect nutrition and a poor state of blood.'

Obviously in those early years the majority of treatments came from the countryside and for lepers they were far from pleasant. For example, in the fifteenth century a soup was recommended which contained borage, watercress, nettles, bugloss, fennel, mercury and watermint (the mercury here being the plant, not the metal). There were instructions for bleeding the patient in the right arm and the right foot in April and before October and in the left arm and the left foot early in November. The arms were cupped and the legs were lanced in winter. A mixture of treacle, fumitory or watermint was recommended, while he drank scabious and fumitory boiled in wine and was then made to sweat and sleep.

Described as a principal medicine for leprosy was a mix barley and toads boiled together. These were fed to newly-hatched chicks which were reportedly then fed to the lepers. Under no circumstances was a leper to eat 'eels, congers, dogfish, soles, porpoise, goose, mallard... sinewy flesh, unclean pork, much pepper and garlic'.

There was some understanding of the spread of infection in those early times and lepers were said to have breath which polluted the atmosphere. There was another belief that those who had been extremely good or who had suffered terribly on earth would surely find a place in Heaven. This resulted in leper hospitals being given by the wealthy and the touching of the sores of the lepers in an attempt to contract the disease - thus ensuring Heaven-worthy suffering.