One of my favorite continuing Saturday Night Live skits of the 1970s occurred when Steve Martin was host. It was called Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber. Martin played Theodoric, a know-it-all medieval barber who treated all manner of ailments with the prevailing medical wisdom of the time. Bill Murray had too much mead at the May Festival and broke his leg after getting run over with an oxcart? Cover him with leeches and hang him upside down from the gibbet. Lorraine Newman is listless? Clearly caused by an imbalance of bodily humours, to be remedied by constant bleedings. When his patients inevitably died after suffering terribly, Jane Curtin would rip into him, closing with “Why don’t you just admit it? You don’t know what you’re doing.” Her speech would cause Theodoric to have a dimly perceived epiphany. He would then launch into a speech about “What if we followed a scientific method, where we formed hypotheses, and then tested them in controlled environments, to determine what actually works?” but then dismiss that radical notion with a “Nah!”
One of the funny things about Theodoric of York was the silliness of the remedies. How could the backward peasants of the Middle Ages believe that bleeding or leeches would cure anything?
I thought of Theodoric recently when I went in for my third colonoscopy. 500 years from now, humans no doubt will howl at the idea that people willingly went to doctors and had a long flexible tube with a camera at the end shoved up their keisters in hopes of detecting cancer. In fact, we’re not so different from our medieval ancestors. The reality is that people who hope for good health will endure all manner of indignities visited upon them by practitioners — be they barbers or doctors or faith healers — who promise to have the cure for what ails us.