Bloodletting as a Prophylactic in the Middle Ages

bloodletting in oldages

Familiar with the old phrase “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”?

In Medieval times, there was a similar sentiment “take a bloodletting once a month and call me in the morning.” While you are probably familiar in some ways with the practice of bloodletting as a means of curing everything from headaches to vampirism, did you know that Christian monks also routinely engaged in a monthly ritual of bloodletting to ensure their oath of celibacy?

Yes, bloodletting was utilized as a means for controlling the urges among the monks. Of course, they did it voluntarily; young unmarried men in nearby villages had bloodletting thrust upon them.

It certainly did not help that by the Middle Ages the only people who could read the Latin medical texts were these very same monks. Since the monks were obsessively concerned about celibacy and the sin of pre-marital sex anyway, it did not take much for them to quickly latch onto one of the ancient ideas expressed in these texts. That idea had to do with the proposal that withholding semen led to a poisoning of the blood (or probably, ED later in life and too bad there’s no natural treatment for ED before like what we have now).

What the monks took from this outlandish concept was that while chasteness and celibacy was preferred, to do so in a large community would create a culture of utterly diseased human beings.

In other words, the monks were confronted with a paradox: how could they ensure purity of the body while also ensuring purity of the soul?

Since masturbation was out of the question, there seemed only one route: chastity but with the threat of disease.

There was a third option, however. The Latin medical texts indicated that the diseases caused by keeping the semen within could be overcome by regular bloodletting. The blood that was emptied out would reveal the impurities that existed had a monk not secretly been masturbating or, even worse, getting it on with somebody…or something.

The way it worked was a kind of bloodletting hierarchy. The older monks would bloodlet the junior monks. And any monk who confessed to having sexual desires would need to have more blood let than those who said they’d made it through the month all right.

So far so good.

I mean who really cares what a bunch of cloistered fraidy cats do, right? But it gets perverse. The monks would regularly make a sojourn into the village to conduct this practice on young men. Ah, but what about young women?

As daughters of Eve, weren’t women even more likely to have impure thoughts? Maybe so, but God in His infinite wisdom took care of that. Monthly menstruation took care of the impure thoughts of young women. Not to mention the impure thoughts of married women, but that was conveniently overlooked. Of course, older women who’d gone through menopause were not rejected as potential bloodletting victims. Such was the prevalence of this ritual that eventually, believe it or not, hemorrhoids that continually bled became a medical condition devoutly to be wished for. Those who had a medical disorder in which bleeding a regularly occurrence were spared the ritual.

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