Leeching in the Middle Ages: A Medical Practice for Bloodletting and Humoral Balance

Leeching in the Middle Ages: A Medical Practice for Bloodletting and Humoral Balance


The Middle Ages were a time of great hardship and suffering, with few opportunities for the common people to improve their lot in life. Some of the least pleasant employment opportunities available to medieval people included jobs such as fullers, who spent their working lives stomping on newly woven cloth in vats of stale urine, and leech collectors, who risked infection by wading into marshes and letting bloodsuckers cling to their legs. However, one practice that was surprisingly common during the Middle Ages was the use of leeches as a medical treatment.

The Middle Ages Leeching: An Overview

In the Middle Ages, people had many peculiar ways of treating illnesses and diseases, some of which were downright disgusting. One of the most curious practices was the use of leeches as a form of medical treatment. But why did medieval people cover themselves in bloodsucking leeches? Let’s explore this bizarre phenomenon and the role it played in medieval medicine.

Leeching was a common medical practice during the Middle Ages that involved the application of leeches to a patient’s body for the purpose of bloodletting. The belief was that this would rid the body of impurities and balance the body’s humors, which were thought to be the underlying cause of many illnesses. Leeches were also used to treat a variety of ailments, such as fever, headaches, and inflammation.

The practice was often performed by barber-surgeons, who were not trained in medicine but were skilled in the use of sharp instruments. Despite its popularity, leeching was not always effective and could sometimes lead to further illness or infection. Nevertheless, the practice persisted throughout the Middle Ages and was even used as late as the 19th century. Today, leeching is rarely used in modern medicine, except in certain specialized fields such as reconstructive surgery.

The Practice of Leeching: A Brief History

While the practice of leeching may have had some therapeutic benefits, the process of collecting leeches was far from pleasant. Leech collectors were often tasked with wading into marshes and other wetland areas to collect the bloodsucking creatures, which could be dangerous and even deadly. Many leech collectors suffered from infections and other illnesses as a result of their work, and the job was considered to be one of the least pleasant employment opportunities available to people in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages were a time of great hardship and struggle for many people, particularly those in the lower echelons of society. In an era before modern medicine, people had to rely on a range of unconventional remedies to treat their various ailments and injuries. One such remedy was the use of leeches, which were believed to have therapeutic properties that could help to restore balance to the body.

Leeching was a popular medical practice in the Middle Ages, with practitioners using leeches to treat a variety of conditions, including fevers, headaches, and even mental illnesses. The process of leeching involved placing the bloodsucking creatures on the affected area of the body, allowing them to feed on the patient’s blood until they became engorged and fell off. It was believed that this process would help to remove “excess” blood from the body and restore balance to the humors.

The Risks and Rewards of Leech Collecting

The use of leeches in medieval medicine may seem barbaric and unorthodox by modern standards, but it was once a widely accepted practice with a long and complex history. While we may never fully understand the motivations and beliefs that drove people to cover themselves in bloodsucking leeches, we can still appreciate the role that this unusual remedy played in shaping the medical practices of the Middle Ages and beyond.

Collecting leeches was not a job for the faint-hearted. Leech collectors had to wade into marshes and swamps, often risking infection and disease, to capture the bloodsuckers. They would cover their legs in meat or animal blood to attract the leeches and then use their hands to remove them from their skin. The leeches were then sold to apothecaries and physicians who used them for medicinal purposes.

Despite the risks, however, leech collecting was a lucrative business, with many collectors able to sell their wares to physicians and other medical practitioners for a tidy profit. The demand for leeches was high, and some collectors were able to make a good living from their work, despite the dangers involved.

The Role of Leeches in Medieval Medicine

Leeches were used in a variety of medical applications during the Middle Ages. They were applied to the skin to remove blood, which was thought to be a cure for a variety of ailments. They were also used to relieve the pain and swelling associated with inflammation, such as in cases of arthritis or rheumatism. Leeches were even used in cosmetic procedures, as it was believed that they could improve the complexion by removing impurities from the blood.

The use of leeches in medicine dates back to ancient times, but it became particularly popular in medieval Europe. Leeches were believed to have medicinal properties that could cure a variety of ailments, from headaches and fever to gout and hemorrhoids. They were also used as a means of bloodletting, a common medical practice in the Middle Ages that involved the removal of blood from a patient’s body.

The Legacy of Leech Therapy

Although the practice of leeching has fallen out of favor in modern times, it remains an important part of medical history, and its impact on the development of medicine cannot be overstated. Leeching was once considered to be a legitimate medical practice, and many people believed in its therapeutic benefits. While we now know that many of these beliefs were unfounded, the legacy of leeching continues to be felt to this day, and its impact on the development of medicine and medical science cannot be denied.

While the use of leeches as a medical treatment declined in popularity with the advent of modern medicine, it is still used today in certain circumstances. Leech therapy is now used as a means of promoting blood flow in the healing of certain types of injuries, such as skin grafts and reconstructive surgeries. The use of leeches in medicine is a testament to the enduring legacy of medieval medical practices, and the enduring human desire to find a cure for what ails us.


The use of leeches as a medical treatment may seem strange and unpleasant to us today, but it was an important part of medieval medicine. The leech collectors who risked their health and safety to gather these bloodsuckers were just one example of the unpleasant employment opportunities open to people in the Middle Ages. While we may find their practices bizarre, we can appreciate the role they played in shaping the foundations of modern medicine and the development of medical knowledge.

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