Edit: As this is an open-ended question, and might become closed, there is now a chat room for it.

In a medieval setting, people find medication much easier to come by.

Medicines have a lot more variety (so instead of only medications that fall on far ends of a spectrum, people have access to medicines that are like Benadryl and Advil, but they also have good pain medications for severe situations and everything inbetween) and most simple medicines don't require being refined/lab made, instead they can be grown as crops.

How would this affect medical and/or biological knowledge?

I do not know whether people would have a better sense of human chemistry or whether they would just chock it up to religious beliefs

Note: the population has a high amount of religious believers, but they also have some dedicated scientists.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with crop-grown medicines is that, on top of all the other problems inherent with drugs (interactions, side effects, etc.), the dosage will necessarily vary between different plants, and also you are guaranteed they will be contaminated. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jun 7, 2023 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that questions of the form "here's a simple change, how does it affect history?" are known as high concept questions and they're off-topic because they break too many help center rules. One is that they're usually too story-based. Example: people (especially women) who knew a bit too much about herbology during the medieval era were usualy burned as witches. Result: nothing would change, unless you need it to due to narrative necessity. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 7, 2023 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ Hello lost_not_found! As JBH concludes, this question deserves lots of exploring, not just for the direct consequences of the availability of medication, but also of the consequences of the condition that led to this happening. For this, I have created a chat room for you. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 7, 2023 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ You do realise that "dedicated scientist" and "religious believer" are not mutually exclusive, right? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 8, 2023 at 2:08

5 Answers 5


My answer:

"Not much different than it actually was"


The study of herbs and plants was pretty well known in Medieval times. Whether it be Monks, Apothecaries or Wise Women - there are many groups that were had knowledge of helpful plants and lore.

We have Greek and Roman texts and old english texts talking about which Herbs/Plants to use for which Ailments.

The issue is that without an accurate understanding of the root cause of most issues, the treatments were very hit and miss and without repeated experiments with a known set of variables, what worked once or twice might merely have been placebo

Even if the crops that are growing are much more potent that 'traditional' plant based medicine, you still have perhaps the biggest fundamental problem:

Controlling the Dosage.

Let's say someone comes to you for a loss of appetite, and you prescribe them a big, fat blunt (Aka a Marijuana cigarette). Without knowing the exact concentration of THC in that plant and the other variables, it might not be enough to get the desired effect (the munchies) or it might be too strong (Green Fever).

Now, granted - with a fairly consistent crop, you can make a pretty good estimate - hell, even today we do this all the time - When you've got kids, liquid Paracetamol (Calpol/Panmol/Tylenol) for anything remotely medical is the go-to and just follow the weight/age guideline and see if it fixes it.

But with plants, it's not a given - that's where refining and processing really does wonders - so you know exactly how much of the active ingredient someone is getting.

Getting back to my earlier point though about the root cause - that's the other issue - consider this, One day your village elder is sick, and so you sacrifice a goat and your village elder makes a full recovery, if that happens twice in a row - then you could infer that a sacrifice of sufficient value to the relevant deity is a cure for what made them sick....

But today we would know that it's likely a 48 tummy bug and once they've vomitted and crapped it all out (so long as they don't loose too much fluid) they will be fine.

This is the part that really starts to change things - the scientific method. Controlling the variables and testing - that's why we know today that a Goat Sacrifice isn't a good cure for a Tummy Bug. It's the difference between Causation and Correlation (something that even today, well educated humans struggle to distinguish).

So to conclude:

1: Without the scientific method to accurately determine the root cause of disease/ailment, any medical system won't look much different from Medieval medicine. and
2: Plants and other grown medicinal herbs, without refining and accurately measuring the active ingredient can vary wildly in effectiveness giving asymetric results, which will lead to a system that looks similar to medieval medicine.

  • $\begingroup$ Variations of the scientific method go all the way back to ancient Greece. The issue was not so much a lack of research being done, but a huge disconnect between the people doing research and the general population who had no books or schools to learn about it. So while eating 3 mint leaves to get rid of a stomach ache to the common peasant might seem like some kind of manifestation of the holy trinity, to the actual apothecary, it is the recommended dose from his book that was written by another apothecary who spent a decade or more using mint to treat stomach aches in hundreds of patients. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 7, 2023 at 15:16

You Underestimate Medieval Medicine

The scientific method and modern intellectual property laws did a lot of harm to the medical industry before modern medicine actually started to catch up. In the medieval period, apothecaries had a huge wealth of herbal and fungal knowledge that they accumulated not through several month clinical trials, but through millennia of experimentation and observation, with one generation informing the next of what they've learned.

The real problem came in during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution periods. During the Enlightenment period, many older practices like ritual hand washing and food sanitation practices were abandoned because the public explanation for them were spiritual in nature, and the doctors of the time had no clue that these rituals practices evolved through observation of the natural world. So, no-longer God fearing people in fact started getting sick more often and living shorter lives.

Then during the Industrial Revolution we saw the evolution of intellectual properties rights. These meant that a person could not own the exclusive right to produce and sell herbs, but they could own the exclusive right to produce and sell medicinal chemicals. This encouraged the entire medical world to villainize and abandon literally thousands of years of research and start over from scratch. You can't own the rights to coca leaves which are more or less safe to chew on in a wide range of dosages, but you can own the rights to a tincture made from chemically extracted cocaine, tar, mercury, and whatever other random shit you throw in it to make it your own unique intellectual property. So doctors abandoned well researched herbal medicine in favor of things they could own and profit from.

In fact, many Western Doctors have started going back to prescribing herbal medicines because they are often safer and work better than any pharmaceutical drugs currently available. For example, modern anti-acids like Nexium and Tums cause long-term stomach acid instability that actually causes the chronic stomach aches that they are supposed to treat. But, if you treat it with mint or liquorish like they did in the medieval period, you knock out the acute symptoms and encourage improved digestive function in the future. Instead of cough medicine, they would take a spoon full of honey. Honey is a natural cough suppressant that is virtually impossible to OD on and safe for anyone over the age of 1 year old. It is so effective, that many modern cough medicines have started to sneak it into thier formulas "for flavor", or to "supplement" the active ingredients, when in reality, half the active ingredients become unnecessary once you put the honey in. Locally sourced honey also reduces pollen allergies. Lavender as a stress reducer can eliminate the need for potentially harmful SSRIs. Pregnant woman and people with stomach conditions are often advised to eat lemon or ginger to control fevers, and turmeric or cloves to control inflammation as safer alternatives to NSAIDs.

Even child birthing practices are starting to look back to Medieval midwifery techniques since most modern child-birthing complications and deaths are actually CAUSED by modern medical interventions. In most cases, it is actually safer for a mother and child today to give birth with no doctor at all than to go to a hospital to give birth, but the highest success rates are when attended by a midwife following practices that were mostly invented in Ancient and Medieval times.

So, why do people think medicine was so bad during the medieval period?

The 4 humors theory lead to blood letting which killed a lot of people. It reduced the fever, but left the sick person immuno-compromised which would often cause death as a long-term side-effect to otherwise non-fatal illnesses.

There was also Miasma theory that basically stated that sickness passed through bad smelling air. While bad smells are in fact a natural warning against things that are bad for us, it lead to some very ineffective sanitation practices when dealing with other kinds of sicknesses.

Lastly, there is one modern medical breakthrough that trumps pretty much every other medical advantage in the history of man-kind: vaccines. Vaccines have done such an amazing job of destroying a wide range horrible diseases it masks a lot of the harm done by other failures in the medical industry. A vaccine does things that no amount of herbs or pharmaceuticals can do, and that is keep you from ever getting sick to begin with.

How to make Medieval Medicine comparable to modern medicine

First, replace Miasma and 4 Humors Theory with other superstitious practices that more accurately prescribe the kinds of precautions you take with Germ Theory. In our world, Hippocrates theorized both 4 Humors and Miasma Theory, but before he came along there was the Tooth Worm Theory that said that cavities were caused by tiny worms that are too small to see. This 7000 year old superstition is actually the first known example of something resembling Germ Theory. If instead of creating these new theories, Hippocrates had guessed that all sickness was caused by variations of these too-small-to-see creatures that he himself already believed in, then he would have without any proof of thier existence, been better able to come up with effective treatments and precautions that mimic Germ Theory treatments and precautions.

For example, if you understand that a fever is your body's way of burning out invading lung worms, then your focus becomes just keeping the head cool to prevent brain damage and letting the rest of the body heat up to protect itself. And if you believe that coughing expels those evil lung worms, then you know it is the worms and not the smell of the person that can get you sick, so your goal naturally becomes to filter the worms out of the air instead of just trying to make them smell nice. It would also lead to important observations about handwashing. It was well known you should wash your hands, to "get clean with God", and it was well known that soaps made from lye made your hands feel cleaner and that lye was also caustic, but if you believe your hands are covered in dangerous little worms, then cleaning your hands with soap after touching a surface that may have worms on it to burn them away suddenly becomes the logical conclusion.

The second thing you could do is come up with some primitive form of vaccines. Most vaccines are grown in eggs or animals, and then extracted to inject into humans. Similar techniques could be replicated through a sort of ritualistic ceremony. So, as a child attains certain ages, they go through these rites of passage to fortify thier bodies against spiritual warfare.


How educated are the populace?

Traditional Chinese Medicines (or TCMs) have been in use for a couple thousand years, and while they may not be as effective as most Western Medicines, they are mostly findable in nature as you mentioned in your scenario. I am aware that TCM is mostly considered a pseudoscience but similar to your scenario, they have "effects" that are from things that can be grown, which they turned into their own medical system. However, in a medieval setting, it may be that you would be pursued for these beliefs. Crop farming also was not nearly as complex, so it really depends on what you define as "simple".

So, to answer your question, in a medieval situation, it may boost their medical studies (such as early surgeons and possibly bacteria).

(As a side note acupuncture also was used in ancient China as branch of TCM, may be related.)

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, except that witchcraft trials of this sort are an Early Modern thing rather than a medieval one, and in many ways better understood as a way in which formal medicine was using trust in the basic institution of the time (i.e. religion) to get rid of folk competitors. A medieval witch might have been killed for having heretical beliefs, rather than for having some unexplainable potions. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jun 7, 2023 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas Thanks, my history got a bit mixed up, but updated to be more accurate. $\endgroup$
    – Xalose
    Jun 7, 2023 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas You mean late medieval, not early modern, don't you? During the medieval period, people were called witches because the church believed mortals healing mortals denied the will of God. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 7, 2023 at 5:46
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: The book was written and published in the early Renaissance. Initially the Inquisition condemned the Malleus as being "inconsistent with Catholic doctrine" and for "recommending illegal procedures" (words from Wikipedia). Ihaveideas is right; the great majority of witch hunts and persecutions happened in the 17th century, which is either late Renaissance or Early Modern. During most of the medieval period, it was considered a grave heresy to believe that witches had any power. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 7, 2023 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, thank you. No, I mean Early Modern; the link you provided tells how Malleus Maleficarum was "first published in 1486", while the medieval period is generally held to have ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, more than 30 years earlier. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jun 7, 2023 at 8:04

It would increase the number of religions.

To understand the situation, look at the process of developing a science. Science is developed as a result of merchants trading. Reputable merchants want consistent processes to produce consistent results. The "Scientific Method" comes from that desire for consistency.

Before science has worked out the consistency, entrepreneurs are jumping in, making all sorts of wild promises, and trying to make a buck off of it. We see that happening today with AI. When the target audience is religious, the entrepreneurs use religious forms to make their money.

In nearly every culture, psychedelic compounds are used for religious purposes. When more "medicinal plants" are available, that will increase the number that have psychoactive effects. Enterprising people will promote the use of one over others and make it part of their religion. Since the religion actually generates psychedelic experiences and it may actually heal people, it will get followers.


From a public health perspective the effect of higher quality pharmaceuticals would be limited at a population level by constraints on hygiene, water quality, logistics and market efficiency.

A wealthy class of people will probably see a significant benefit from the increased quality in drugs but, for the average person and population as a whole, there are more significant determinants of health.

In developed countries most epidemic diseases were only eliminated after the industrial revolution when clean drinking water became widely available and large scale works, like draining malarial swamps and building public hospitals became possible.

Even in most developing countries today, there are significant shortages of meds at national or sub-national levels, difficulties with last mile distribution, cost barriers for patients who have the highest need and low care-seeking behavior amongst low-income households.

For medicines to be effective you also need highly trained doctors and pharmacists to dispense them which requires a well developed educational pipeline. Even in developed countries there are often shortages of these professionals and it is difficult to adequately cover an entire population.

So, in a medieval society, probably the nobility, closest to the center of the supply chain, with access to trained physicians at court and better inpatient care would benefit from higher quality medication. But, for the population as a whole, it would not have a significant impact.


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