Were criminals in the middle ages able to get treatment for injuries, and if so, how? I mean criminals such as bandits who wouldn't be able to seek whatever medical care was normally available, even if they had comparable wealth to people who could get medical care. I'd be interested in information about any location and any time period before 1500, but late medieval Europe would be ideal.

What I've found:

I've been able to find a lot of articles about doctors/surgeons for pirates/privateers in the sixteenth century or later, but not much earlier.

I read the plague doctors were often unlicensed, but I don't know if that means they treated criminals.

I've found information about doctors who committed crimes / fraud / malpractice / graverobbing, but not about doctors who cared for criminals.

I found information about how soldiers treated wounds.

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    I'm no mediaeval expert, but I would guess that it's impossible to generalise. It would depend on the severity of the injury and whether the medical 'professional' was charitable enough to look upon the patient first of all as a fellow human being in need of help. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 15:27
  • @KateBunting Fair enough. Would something like "Is there any evidence of medieval criminals receiving professional medical care?" be better? Otherwise I can delete since it doesn't seem to have an authoritative answer. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:20
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    What treatment?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 19:32
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    There's good reason why the term "barber-surgeon" exists, and for why barbers to this day advertise their premises with an emblem modeled after blood running down a skin-white limb. European physicians and surgeons only merge into a single profession in the 18th and 19 centuries; and the barber-surgeon known and local to a "criminal" is not likely to ask too many deep questions if not otherwise aware of a crime beyond convenient walking distance. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 23:47
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    "plague doctors were often unlicensed". I'm not aware of any licensing of the medical profession around that time in the middle ages (though I guess there might have been local rulers who'd demand tribute for people to ply their trade in their territory, which would be more of a tax than a professional licensing scheme).
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:38

1 Answer 1


You're talking about a period lasting hundreds of years and an area spanning a continent, that's not going to be conducive towards there being a single correct answer. Overall though you seem under the impression that the society you're thinking of was much more organised along modern lines than it really was.

  1. your plague doctor was unlicensed because there was no medical licensing body. And in some areas the percentage of the population who died was so great there was no effective governing body at all.

  2. How would a doctor know the person presenting themselves for treatment was a criminal? Do you think the police (there was none, typically) were going to call on the local hospital (there were none) and ask for someone to treat the arrow to the knee of the horse thief they apprehended?

  3. There was not really much in the way of organised medical training being provided. What there was were people passing on their knowledge to apprentices or family members, mostly. The exception were monasteries where some semblance of formalised training existed for the inhabitants. These would normally offer sanctuary to anyone needing it, no questions asked (especially if you paid them a nice donation, of course).

Your criminal's best bet would thus be to find the nearest monastic brotherhood and beg for shelter. He might then be safe both from persecution by a lynch mob and receive food and what little medical treatment was available at the same time, at least for a while. In return he would likely be expected to make himself useful in the monastery doing chores and using what skills he has (maybe he knows how to do carpentry for example, or stone work).

The same'd be true for most anyone needing treatment for complaints that require more than a herbal brew or poultice of dung.

  • "your plague doctor was unlicensed because there was no medical licensing body" - In the 14th century there were several universities in Europe able to give a medical license. Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 19:57
  • @CarlosMartin they might give such, but there was no way to enforce those. They were basically no more than a certificate stating the person holding the piece of paper had studied there.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:01
  • Well, but in thecaveonline.com/APEH/plaguedoctorcontract.html they call the plague doctor "doctor of medicine" which supposes a university degree. It also calls the doctor "Master", a rank in a guild. Since there was a Guild of "Surgeons, barbers, phlebotomaries and doctors" in the important cities, the members of the guild could enforce the medical license of the doctor. Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:13
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    Thanks for taking the time to answer! This was helpful. Regarding covering a long time / large area, I was concerned that if I was too specific there would be no sources at all, since it's not a question about rich/literate people, if I said something like "bandits living far from cities in Italy in the late 15th century" or something like that. But if that would be better, I could edit the question to be more specific (or ask a separate question since you've already answered this one). Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 2:59
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    The Middle Ages is a too general concept, but just as a note, in Barcelona in 1304 you needed a license given by the Guild to be a doctor. And there are several trials in the records of the city about doctors acting without licenses because they didn't have the proper education, being only "goliards" (students). So, not authority of the ruler of the country, but Guilds got authority in their cities. Commented Mar 15, 2023 at 9:57

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