Despite what we might think, medicine at the time had a number of more or less effective remedies for pain. One of the signs that there was an interest in pain management is the technical specialization of vocabulary: doctors describe as “anodynes”, from the Greek an - odunè, “which suppresses pain”, the medications we now call painkillers.

Elías Montalto - The Difficult Use of Narcotics

Three categories of anodynes

  • Curative anodynes, which suppress the cause of pain: purgatives, resections of tumors, etc.

  • Anodynes in the strict sense, which soothe the affected area: cataplasms made from analgesic plants, herbal baths, etc.

  • Last-resort anodynes, which suppress the senses:

    • temporarily (for example, during an operation): compression and ligature of nerves, application of cold, ingestion of narcotics such as opium or henbane.

    • definitively: sectioning or cauterizing a nerve to end persistant and potentially fatal pain. In the words of surgeon Ambroise Paré, who was very concerned by the pathogenic effects of pain: “it is better to lose [a nerve] than one's lifeAmbroise Paré, Les Œuvres, Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1585, 10th book, chap. XL, p. 412..

The importance of lifestyle

In addition to these natural treatments, doctors are very attentive to their patients' comfort; they make recommendations regarding their lifestyles and the passions of their souls: “avoid sadnessHenricus Regius, Medicina et praxis medica, editio tertia, Utrecht, Theodori ab Ackersdijck, 1668, « Praxis medica », lib. I, II, p. 7. ; enjoy entertainments without excess; seek sensations conducive to calm (music, the contemplation of a landscape).

Ambroise Paré - Ensuring the Patient's Comfort

Occasionally dangerous remedies

In some cases, the remedies used for persistent pain were themselves painful or even dangerous: migraines were sometimes treated with mercury. In their writings, physicians who prescribe such remedies do not dwell on the pain they can cause - but we can read the harsh judgments of their colleagues and the outraged testimonies of some of their patients.

“Very few were they who could get their Health after all these Pains and Perils of LifeUlrich Hutten, De Morbo Gallico. A Treatise of the French Disease, publish’d above 200 Years past, trans. Daniel Turner, London, John Clarke, 1730, p. 11., humanist Ulrich von Hutten writes on the subject of syphilis treatments. Patients were put inside ovens to make them sweat. Above all, Hutten criticizes the use of remedies unsuited to the specific needs of each patient.

Ulrich von Hutten - Suffering in Incompetent Hands