Medical Madness: Plague Cures Edition
In 1347, the Black Death began to sweep through Europe, and by 1348 it crossed the channel to the British Isles. This was the bubonic plague (eek!), so named for the massive swellings (buboes) that the victims developed in their groin and armpit areas. These oozed blood and pus, and black blotches appeared all over the skin. Bodies began to pile up faster and faster, and as with many ancient diseases it was hugely misunderstood. To find out what those in the Middle Ages hypothesised were the causes and cures, read this week’s Medical Madness!
People thought that you could catch the plague in many (wrong) ways:
-breathing ‘bad air’
-drinking from poisoned wells
-just lookin’ at a victim
Foreigners were often blamed for the epidemic; the French blamed the English, the Spanish blamed the Arabs… Everyone blamed the minorities- scapegoats are fun? Sinners were often blamed, and groups of religious folks wandered the streets whipping themselves to say sorry to God. These people liked scapegoats too; they blamed the priests. Who threatened the flagellants. Who then blamed the Jews. Basically, everything was a mess.
In Sicily, people thought that plague death was signified by a big black dog (the Grim, anyone?). It carried a sword in its paws and smashed idols in churches. In Scandinavian countries, death was a flame who flew in and out of the mouths of victims. In Lithuania, death was let into the house by a woman waving a red scarf. All spooky! All wrong.
The real cause of the plague has only been discovered in the last 100 years or so! Here’s how we think it went down:
-The plague started somewhere in Asia, and was brought to Europe through trade. Rats stowed away in shipments of fabric and other goods, and fleas stowed away on rats.
-Rats had the plague bacteria in their blood, and fleas just loved to sup on this (yummy).
-The bacteria multiplied inside the fleas. And multiplied. And multiplied.
-The fleas got bored of chillin’ with rats, and jumped onto people instead. They would drink the person’s blood… and then vomit all over them. The bacteria from their stomachs got into the human.
And it was as simple as that, really. One flea bite was enough to kill anyone, and in the shockingly unhygienic 14th century fleas were just as common as you would expect. Sanitation was awful and people- especially in France- were just thrown in the river instead of burned or buried. Unsurprisingly, this did not help matters.
Now for the fun bit. What did these people think you could do to ward off or cure the plague? This list isn’t exhaustive; there were a ridiculous amount!
-Swallow the powder of crushed emeralds (expensive habit, huh?).
-Snack on arsenic. Brilliant idea. You wouldn’t die of plague- because you would just die.
-Blood letting; remember this from last time?
-Sit in a sewer for a while. In the Middle Ages, sewers were open and ran right down the middle of the street- but the stench was supposed to get rid of the ‘bad air’ which caused plague.
-Sniff a posy of sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, or chuck some on the fire. This almost certainly did nothing, but I prefer herbs to the above medieval poop-smell.
-And my favourite! Shave a chicken. Strap it to your plague sore. Problem solved.
Plague wasn’t the only illness with a potty Middle-Age cure. Ringworm? Wash your hair in a young boy’s pee. Gout? Apply a plaster of goat poo, rosemary and honey. And for internal bleeding, you should wear a dried toad round your neck. In conclusion? I LOVE THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY, AND SO SHOULD YOU.
But man, should you be glad you weren’t alive back then…
Image credit:Wikimedia Commons