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A Norfolk plague skull tells the tragic story of an illness that devastated Great Yarmouth in new exhibition

PUBLISHED: 16:17 02 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:44 02 April 2019

The Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

The Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

(C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

Your chance to see a skull dug up from a Great Yarmouth plague pit at a new exhibition at Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth.

The Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide MuseumThe Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

It’s a chance to delve inside a barber surgeon’s tool chest, to see a human skull discovered in a Norfolk plague pit, to hold a massively-magnified louse and smell the herbs inside an apothecary’s table: Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide Museum’s new exhibition is painfully good.

Medieval Medicine is a touring exhibition from the Jorvik Group and makes its UK premiere in Yarmouth, where visitors will meet five medical practitioners from the middle ages and discover the often gruesome cures used in Medieval England to treat the afflicted.

The life and work of a plague doctor, a man of God, a Cunning Woman, an Apothecary and a Barber Surgeon are all put under the microscope alongside a range of wonderfully interactive exhibits such as a physician’s uroscopy wheel (which links the colour of your urine to particular diseases) and fascinating glass cases containing real human remains.

Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, the owners and operators of The Jorvik Group, said: “Medieval Medicine allows visitors to explore different medical practices in this era, using archaeological science to discover the diverse approaches to treatment as well as using facial reconstruction techniques to uncover more about individuals who were afflicted with different ailments.”

Time and Tide's Medieval Medicine  (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide MuseumTime and Tide's Medieval Medicine (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

Included in the exhibition are displays which relate to Great Yarmouth’s tragic past. A section of the exhibition tells the story of the 1348 plague which saw around 7,000 of the estimated population of 10,000 die from the bubonic plague.

A human skull from the Norfolk Museum Service’s collection and which was discovered at the former site of Blackfriar’s Priory in the town is a terrible reminder of a disease which ravaged Yarmouth: thought to be the skull of a young girl aged between 10 and 15.

Highly-contagious, the plague of 1348 would have spread like wildfire through the town’s cramped medieval houses and rows – although the disease left little mark on the skeletons of those it claimed, evidence can be found hidden deep within the bones, even hundreds of years later.

In addition to the Norfolk plague skull, there are also three full skeletons from the York Archaeological Trust collection which reveal evidence of three illnesses: leprosy, cancer and a knee injury. Each skeleton and the illness the person suffered from is described and a cure is offered by the five medical practitioners.

Time and Tide's Medieval Medicine  (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide MuseumTime and Tide's Medieval Medicine (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

Councillor John Ward, chair of the Norfolk Joint Museums Committee, said: “The history of medicine is a fascinating subject for all ages and this new exhibition brings the stories of practitioners and patients vividly to life. We’re delighted Time and Tide is the first venue for this exhibition and to be working with the Jorvik Group which is renowned for its dynamic approach to the past.”

There was a general acceptance in medieval times that the body comprised of four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile and if any of the humours became out of balance, it could cause illness or death. The alignment of the stars was also important in deciding what treatment should be applied, and when.

Sometimes illnesses were believed to have supernatural causes or the sick could be blamed for their own suffering with illness seen as a punishment sent by God for sinful behaviour.

Included in the exhibition are a selection of replica items a barber surgeon would have used including a cupping glass to draw blood to the surface of the body, louse combs, amputation saws, bloodletting fleams and retractors to open wounds or incisions, there are also herbs to smell.

The Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide MuseumThe Jorvik Group's Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum (C) The Jorvik Group/Time and Tide Museum

A brand new film made in association with Horrible Histories author Terry Deary is being shown for the first time in the UK at the exhibition and there is a varied and exciting events programme to accompany the exhibition, which is at Time and Tide until September 22.

During the Easter holidays, there will be the chance to meet the historical healthcare professionals who operated in the middle ages to see if they could cure your ills (April 6, 11am to 4pm), to spin the Wheel of Misfortune to find out more about grisly diseases and their cures (April 10, 11am to 4pm) and the chance to make your own lotions and potions (April 17, 11am to 4pm).

* Medieval Medicine is at Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life on Blackfriars Road, Great Yarmouth and the exhibition is included with museum admission. The museum is open every day from 10am to 4.30pm daily until October 31.

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