St. Lucy & Eye Care through the Ages December 14th

Medieval Cataract Surgery – calling couching.

So, yesterday, you, being someone worried about your eyes, might have sought out an altar dedicated to St Lucy, the patron saint of eye health. (see December 13th’s Post on St Lucy) Although you may be disappointed that there has been no miraculous cure, you might have been encouraged to do something about it. So that’s what this post is about.

Cataract operations have been carried out since 800 BC using a method called ‘couching’.

The practitioner would sit facing the patient and pass a long needle through the cornea to impale the lens. “He would then forcibly dislodge the lens — rupturing the zonules — and push it into the vitreous cavity, where it would hopefully float to the bottom of the eye and out of the visual axis.”

Evolution of Cataract Surgery.

This was a last resort when the cataract was opaque and the patients nearly blind. It would mean they would need very thick lenses to see well again but, crude as it seems, it worked. But the operation, without anaesthetics must have been a considerable ordeal, and the recovery (still required today for those suffering from a displaced retina) means that the patient has to lie on their back for a week with supports on either side of the head to prevent movement. Of course, there was also a serious risk of infection, so prophylactic visit to a chapel of St Lucy would be called for.

The modern system was established in the 1940s and offers a great solution in 15 minutes surgery. Currently, the NHS has been having trouble dealing with all the cases required, and, before COVID-19, there was some talk about cataracts being, in practice, not readily available on the NHS. The average waiting time is approximately 10 months, and ranges from 10 weeks to nearly 2 years depending upon your postcode.

Pink Eye

The Perpetual Calendar of Folklore by Charles Kightly has dug up some other folk cures of interest.

For the redness of eyes, or bloodshot. Take red wine, rosewater, and women’s milk, and mingle all these together: and put a piece of wheaten bread leavened, as much as will cover the eye, and lay it in the mixture. When you go to bed, lay the bread upon your eyes calmer and it will help them.

Fairfax Household book, 17th/ 18th century.

There are many household books still, in existence, which show that much of medical practice was carried out in the home, and that men and women, more often women, actively not only collected useful recipes and cures, but also tested them out and improved them.

As a matter of curiosity, there is a very important document found at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda which lists the troops of the Cohort in occupation, which notes that of the garrison of 750, 474 are absent with 276 in the fort of which 38 are sick, 10 with ‘pink eye’, probably conjunctivitis

Prevention is better than cure

Things hurtful to the eyes. Garlic, onions, radish, drunkenness, lechery, sweet wines, salt meats, coleworts, dust, smoke and reading presently after supper.

Good for the eyes. fennel, celandine, eyebright, vervain, roses, cloves and cold water.

Whites Almanack 1627

Looking through Samuel Pepys’s eye

You will note, above, that it was considered bad for the eyes to read in low light. It is a myth and not true. Samuel Pepys was continually worried about his reading and writing habits ruining his eyesight. This is an extract from the poignant last entry in his famous diary:

And thus ends all that I doubt I should ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and therefore resolve from this time forward to have it kept by my people in long-hand. I must be consented to sit down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if they be anything, which cannot be much now my amores are past and my eyes hindering me almost all other pleasures. I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in shorthand with my own hand.

Samuel Pepys Diary, May 31st

The sad thing is that Pepys had another 38 years before he went blind, and what glorious diary entries have we missed because of his false fears of the effect of eye strain.

St Lucy

There are only two churches in the UK dedicated to St Lucy or St Lucia. One run by the National Trust in Upton Magna, Shropshire, but there must have been a few chapels in Cathedrals and Abbeys dedicated to her.

Yesterday, I mentioned that the Swedish Church in London (6 Harcourt Street. W1H 4AG) has services at St Pauls to celebrate St Lucia’s day but, in 2022, it was at the Westminster Cathedral. This is the Catholic Cathedral, working with a Lutheran Church. It was back in St Pauls for 2023.

February 13th The Miracle of the Testicles

Image from Facebook

St Artemios is the patron saint of male genital disorders, more specifically, hernias and ruptures. His Saint’s Day is October 20th but I hope you will forgive me for raising it early because of personal circumstances.

Yesterday, I did a Chaucer’s London Virtual Tour – one I first prepared during the dark days of Covid. As I was revising the presentation, I was surprised to discover that I had illustrated a piece on medieval health care (St Thomas Hospital, Chaucer’s Physician) with images of medieval hernia operations. Surprised, because I am currently recovering from an inguinal hernia operation and suffering a little so that the image (above) which, coincidently popped up in facebook made me laugh. Obviously, I was meant to write about testicles today.

St. Artemios was Governor of Egypt during the reign of Julian the Apostate (331 – 26 June 363). Julian was a philosopher. nephew to Constantine the Great, who tried to turn the tide and return to traditional Roman religious practices. Artemios was called to a military meeting with Julian where he witnessed and objected to abuse of Christians. He was tortured with red hot irons, and miraculously cured. Then he was taken to the Amphitheatre where there was a big stone broken in half, and was put on half stone and the other half was raised above him and released crushing Artemios. He was presumed dead, and left for a day. But he was still alive, broken boned, disembowelled, eyeless and remained unwilling to renounce his religion and Julian ordered his beheading.

A noble woman took his body to Constantinople where his shrine soon started attracting miracles. In the 7th Century an anonymous author compiled a record of the miracles. St Artemios had become known for healing hernias and genital disorders ‘mostly in men.’ I’m not sure entirely why. Perhaps because of the red-hot pokers? The disembowelling? Maybe the stone that crushed was round?

I first came across the Saint when my mother-in-law bought me a wonderful book called ‘A Medieval Miscellany selected by Judith Herrin and with an introduction by the great Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (see Jan 27th Post to read about Montaillou and Ladurie). It had a colourful spread called ‘The Miracle of the Testicles’ which was the story told by Stephen, a 7th Century deacon of St. Sophia in Constantinople who ‘suffered a rupture, whether from shouting acclamations or from a heavy weight, I cannot say.’

To cut a long story short, Stephen was very embarrassed by his condition and eventually tried many cures and finally undertook surgery, which was successful but very soon the condition reoccurred which left him to despair.

Scrotal Hernia Operation, italy
Scrotal Hernia Operation, italy

So he planned to visit the shrine of the great healer of testicles, but was too embarrassed to stand in the Church ashamed to be seen by friends. But passing by one day he nipped into the Tomb, descended to where the relics were and ‘cast’ some of the Saint’s holy oil on his testicles. He then found, much to his surprise, that the doors to the Coffin itself were open. Seeing this as a divine intervention he jumped onto the coffin, straddled it face down, so that the corner of the tomb was rubbing his testicles and prayed:

And with tears, I spoke again to the martyr: “St.Artemios, by God, Who has given you the gift of cures, no doctor on Earth will ever touch me again. So if you please, cure me. But if not, to your everlasting shame I will live thus without cure.

He was not cured immediately. Later he went to the Hot Baths and bathed, and on leaving the baths, thanks be to St Artemios, he was completely cured.

I have transcribed the translation of Stephen’s writings and place it here below as it has many fascinating aspects and remember it is a 7th Century account. But what an extraordinary tale: that it seems reasonable to steal into a tomb, take the holy oil, rub your genitals all over the shrine, and then tell the Saint that it will be to his everlasting shame if he does not make the cure!

For more on the Hospital of Sampson click here. Livanon is one of the Roman Baths in Constantinople and it is interesting that the cure follows bathing in them. The Oxeia is a neighbourhood in Constantinople connected with St Antemios. A cautery is a method to remove or close off a part of the body. It can be hot, cold or chemical.

At long last I disclosed the misfortune to my parents, and after many treatments, (how many!) had been performed on me. Finally, after taking counsel with them, I entrusted myself for surgery to the surgeons in the hospital Sampson, and I reclined in the hospital room near to the entrance to the area devoted to eyes.

After I had been treated all over for three days at night with cold cauteries, surgery was performed on the fourth day. I will omit to what horrible things I experienced while on my back.

To sum up everything, I state that I actually despaired of life itself at the hands of the physicians. After God, entreated by the tears of my parents, restored my life to me, and after the scar from the incision and the cautery had healed, and just as I was believing that I was healthy, a short time later, the same condition recurred and so I reverted to my former state…

I had a plan to approach the holy martyr, as I had heard of his many great miracles. Still, I was unwilling to wait in the venerable church feeling ashamed before friends and acquaintances to be seen by them in such condition. But I frequently used to pass by (for at that time, I was staying in the Oxeia). And so I descended to the holy tomb of his precious relics, and I cast some of his holy blessing, I. e. oil on my testicles, hoping to procure a cure in this manner. And frequently, I entreated him to deliver me from the troublesome condition…

After descending to the holy tomb, I found the doors in front open and I was astounded that they were opened at such an hour. This was the doing of the martyr, in his desire to pity me, Stretching out facedown on the holy coffin, I straddled it, and thus contrived to rub the corner of the same Holy tomb on the spot where I was ailing. And with tears, I spoke again to the martyr: “St.Artemios, by God, Who has given you the gift of cures, no doctor on earth will ever touch me again. So if you please, cure me. But if not, to your everlasting shame I will live thus without cure.’ And after some days I went to the bath in the court of Anthemios, the one called Livanon to bathe by myself at dawn in order not to be seen by anyone . And entering the hot chamber, I noticed that I still had the injury. But upon exiting, I had no injury, and recognising the act of kindness on the part of God and the martyr which is befallen me… in thanksgiving… I do now glorify them proclaiming their deeds of greatness throughout my whole life.

From Medieval Miscellany selected by Judith Herrin Pg 54 the Miracle of the Testicles