Meet Oswald of Ormskirk, Medieval Physician
Hot-seating a historical character can be great fun, not least for the teacher who is usually the lightly-disguised person in the hot seat. It’s also a very effective way of learning and of helping students develop the skill of asking questions. This activity and script has been devised by Geoff Lyon who teaches in Ormskirk and takes on the role of Oswald of Ormskirk, a medieval physician.
The activity can be used for Medicine and Health through Time units or when studying medieval life – and death – at KS3. Teachers should feel free to adapt and customise the outline here for their own purposes, bearing in mind their own pupils, pupils’ prior experience of this technique, the limits of their own comfort zone, the availability of props and their own particular learning objectives.
If used in the context of Medicine and Health through Time, where does this lesson fit in? It could be used immediately after students complete their work on ancient medicine. Using what they have learned about Greek and Roman physicians they have to compile a list of questions they would like to ask a medieval physician so they get a sense of the changes and continuities. Geoff then uses the activity as an introduction to investigating sources to find out how accurate the physician’s information is.
Therefore, after taking part in the activity will enable students to know and understand:
- How a medieval physician diagnosed and treated patients
- How a physician was trained and what ideas he had about the causes of illness
- Some of the continuities with medical methods in the Ancient world
1. Something passing for a medieval physician’s garb. The Drama department might help or an old academic gown might suffice. Historical accuracy is probably less important than the teacher looking unusually and attired.
2. A urine chart in colour (a Google image search leads to several versions) and an astrological chart (use a textbook or Google again). These can be projected rather than printed, if preferred.
3. A bowl or similar receptacle for catching blood. (We are not really going to shed any!)
4. An old blunt scalpel (courtesy of Science technician) and/or some liquorice (or other visual substitute) to act as ‘leeches’. Prunes also make good fake leeches – put two or three prunes into a glass jar and add some water. From only a few feet away they look very realistic.
5. A clear glass flask and some apple juice. (I am sure you can see where this is going!) Your Science technician might be able to supply a suitable unmarked flask, preferably new, but at least very well washed. The apple juice is very realistic-looking urine substitute.
6. If you need to have a script or a set of notes to remind you of what you want to say in role as the physician then create a scroll. Lining paper has a good thickness and looks the part if you tear it so the edge is jagged. Tie your scroll with red ribbon for extra effect. You can then jot notes inside your scroll for your reference while still looking in keeping with the period.
7. You also need a patient! The unfortunate stooge might be a teaching colleague, Teaching Assistant, an ITT trainee or a suitable pupil whom you have primed beforehand, but needs to enter into the spirit of the activity.
Pupil Preparation and choosing the style of the activity
The amount of direct pupil involvement in the activity is at the discretion of the teacher. If the activity is to be an orthodox ‘hot-seating’, pupils need priming beforehand to think of questions they would ask a medieval physician about his ideas and work. Students can get ideas about what to ask by thinking about Roman physicians, their training, books, ideas, methods, equipment and how they used it. Hot-seating places a high demand on the teacher in role because you never know what order the questions will come in so you have to feel fully in command of your material – and you need to have your own menu of topics in your head so you feed in the material students forget to ask about. If you aren’t too experienced in this technique then you can tackle it slightly differently, more as a talk in which you ask or invite questions as and when you wish. This means you keep to a known running order of topics which you can have jotted on your scroll. In this case students will not need to have undertaken any preparation.
The physician’s ‘spiel’ runs something like this (treat it as suggestions rather than a script – you could add in references to the role of God and the qualities or otherwise of women healers and barber-surgeons) and can be adapted if a stooge is not available. Remember that the physician will be university-trained so very conscious of his high status and wealthy patients.
Questions you can ask students are added in [brackets].
My name is Oswald of Ormskirk. Your teacher has asked me to come forward from what you twenty-first century people apparently call the ‘Middle Ages’ to treat X here, who, as you can see, is looking a bit pale today. I hope that pasty look is not because you are worried at the prospect of being treated by me, X!
[What books do you think a physician like me has read?]
Be assured, I am very well qualified to treat you. I spent many years studying medicine at university. I have read the best books by the ancients and the Arabs – Claudius Galen’s ‘The Art of Medicine’, Avicenna’s ‘Book of Fevers’ and many others. I think my favourite is Giles of Corbeil’s work on uroscopy – everything a physician wants to know about urine in 352 lines of Latin verse, written around 1200!
[How do you think I will work out what is wrong with X?]
X has helpfully given me the contents of this flask to help in my diagnosis. Normally of course I would examine the contents three times – once when it was fresh and hot (and steaming on a cold day like today!), once after it has cooled for an hour or so and the third time when it was cold. But just to give you all the idea I’ll use this that X produced for me at what I understand you call ‘Break’.
[How do you think I am going to examine this urine sample?]
So, the first task is to hold the flask of urine up to the light to test what we call its ‘thickness’. Can you see the joints of my fingers through the flask? Just about, yes. A bit ‘thin’. You don’t suffer from fits at all do you? No? If you have epilepsy I know of an excellent cure from John of Arderne – crumbs of roasted cuckoo blown up your nostrils.
Now, what about what we call the ‘contents’ of the urine? Let us gently shake it. Any oily stuff floating on the surface, a dusty sediment, bits on the bottom? Fire and air, being the lighter elements, rise to the top, showing something wrong with the patient’s head. Grit on the bottom, being earthy, suggests trouble with the kidneys or arthritis in the feet.
[What else might I ask to help diagnose his illness?]
What about your diet, X? What have you had to eat today? It sounds like too much! Moderation in diet is the key. Just take a little pottage for your next meal. And the same tomorrow and the next day.
Let me take your pulse, to see how good your digestion is. Hmm, strong but rather fast. You’re not worried about something, are you?
[Is there anything else I should do with the urine sample?]
Anyway, back to the urine. The next task is to check the colour, for which we use this handy chart. Which is the best match? Yes, I think that’s a good match for shade. Happily your urine is not very dark like this one on the chart – a gross excess of black bile, in which case I would be telling you to go and make your confession to the priest at once, for he would be able to do more for your soul than I could do for your body.
We can find out a lot from the shade and content of the urine, but is it sweet or salty? There is only one way to test this...and please do not try this at home! [Physician pauses, tentatively tips up the flask, puts a fingertip into the ‘urine’ and transfers a drop to his tongue.] Hmm, a bit salty perhaps...but it’s difficult to judge from such a small amount. [Tips up the flask to his lips, takes a good mouthful and rolls it round his tongue. Pupils will normally twig that this is not the genuine item!] Yes, undoubtedly you have an excess of blood in your body.
[An excess of blood – what treatment should I recommend?]
We must restore the balance of the humours by drawing off some blood. Don’t look so alarmed sir, why I draw off the blood of the monks at the Priory up the road every month.
[What do I need to check before I do this?]
Let’s just check on my astrological chart to see if the position of the planets is suitable at the moment.
Why yes, I believe it is. So would you prefer the leeches, these little black worms that fix onto your skin and suck out blood until they are bloated and fall off, or would you prefer a simple cut? [Shows patient the choices. Patient runs out of the room in terror. Physician calls after him] Hey, what about my fee, what about my fee?! Every doctor should take his fee in advance, especially if there’s a chance the patient will die. Ah well, I hope at least I have been able to be of some help to all of you.
1. Comparisons and contrasts can be made with medical practitioners from the Ancient period, focussing on the change sand continuities from Roman practice.
2. Geoff then uses the activity as an introduction to investigating sources to find out how accurate the physician’s information is. It is supposed to be very accurate!
3. Further follow up can feature pupils adopting the role of a medieval physician and deciding how they would treat patients with particular symptoms.
A Variation – If No Stooge is Available
If no stooge is available you might greet pupils in character with something like the following paragraph, then talk through the main spiel as appropriate:
‘May I introduce myself? I am Oswald of Ormskirk. Your teacher was feeling off colour this morning and could not get an appointment with his twenty-first century doctor, so summoned me forward in time from what you call the Middle Ages. (He’s very clever like that - did you know?) So he cannot be with you, but said that I should come along instead and tell you about how I, one of the most respected local medieval physicians, find out what illness someone has and decide on a suitable treatment. I understand you are studying the topic. Well,...’
- How often have you used this kind of hot-seating before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?
- What did students learn about change and continuity as well as about the specifics of the work of a medieval doctor?
- When and how will you refer back to this session later in your course? Will this reference back be more effective because of the use of hot-seating?
- Did you enjoy the activity yourself? If so, why?
Medicine in the Middle Ages (The History of Medicine)
by Ian Dawson
The Curious Cures of Old England
by Nigel Cawthorne