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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!

The woo

People thought that you could catch the plague in many (wrong) ways:

-breathing ‘bad air’
-drinking from poisoned wells
-just lookin’ at a victim
-divine retribution

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 science

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.

Crazy cures

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

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  1. March 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm —

    Ohhhh my…
    I am currently writing my master's thesis in history on the Bubonic Plague. It is just. As much fun. As it sounds.
    There is actually a small group of (6 or so) historians who have been running around hollering, "The Black Death wasn't plague! It was something else! But I don't know what!" These historians are silly and have poor source analysis. We hates them, precious.
    Also, the thing that people forget about the plague was that it didn't JUST hit in 1348. It hit again in 1363. And 20 years later. And again. And again. And again. Roughly every 7 to 14 years there was a plague epidemic somewhere in Europe, killing people, until the last major outbreak in Marseilles, France in 1722.
    It even (possibly) crossed the ocean to the Americans for a short while, but the low population density there made it unsustainable and it never reached epidemic proportions (the way Smallpox and other viral diseases did – but thats a post for another time).
    It continued to bounce around Eastern Europe and Central Asia quite regularly until the 1890's, when a huge outbreak in China and India finally caught the attention of western medical officials. (Interestingly, good luck that Britain had colonized those places because they put into place anti-epidemic measures that actually worked). And much fun was had by all.
    This message has been brought to you by: OMG MY THESIS IS DUE IN A MONTH

    • March 22, 2012 at 8:38 am —

      I did know that there were other outbreaks of plague, and not mentioning it was an oversight on my part. I chose to focus on the big, famous "ring-a-roses" outbreak instead.
      Out of interest, what did they do to stamp out plague?

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