We have talked previously in a few occasions in W.U Hstry about the Black Death. However we have not dedicated much time to talk about the medical side of things, particularly how people dealt with it. Therefore, today we will have a look at the ways in which medieval society tried to get rid of the plague before it got to them, as well as how they tried to fight it once they were already infected. The treatment of the Black Death consisted of many diverse types. Some of them made logical sense such as cleaning the streets of all human and animal waste and this waste being taken by a cart to a field outside of the village and burnt. Furthermore, all bodies were required to be buried in deep pits outside of the village and their clothes burnt. However, some of the other treatments were a bit more…well, see for yourselves:
-Nice smells: if you had not contracted the plague just yet, then you ought to be surrounding yourself by “nice smells”. Yes, it was wholeheartedly advised that people would carry flowers or herbs with them in their jackets pockets, or somewhere by their faces so the air they smell would be pleasant. This was suggested as they believed that the illness was transmitted through the airways. You know that rhyme, Ring a Ring O Roses? Supposedly the song could have dated to old times, and it seems likely it could have sparked during any of the many plague infestations known to have taken place in Europe. However, as an interesting counterpart to the recommendation of carrying nice smells, many people in Europe actually moved and lived in the sewers! The same believe of the air transmitted disease caused the opposite effect, if it smells bad in the sewers already, for sure it couldn’t get any worse…!
-Crushed emeralds: this would have only worked if you were wealthy, of course. (And I mean would have worked in the sense of, only in that way you would have been able to access emeralds, of course). Apparently, emeralds were smashed into a super fine powder that then would be mixed with food or drinks, just like you do nowadays with your vitamin supplements. I would have quite literally felt like swallowing glass, and it would have been as likely to kill you as it could have prevented the disease.
That goes as far as preventing the illness. Now if you are already ill, you might as well try some of these remedies as suggested by expert Johny Wilkes…:
-Blood letting: everything was fixed in medieval times (and even sometimes well into the modern period) by drawing some blood. Practitioner will apply leeches to cause the bleeding, but sometimes they will use the more brutal way of cutting off skin and draining the blood from the open wound into a bowl.
-Live chicken: there was an English doctor, by the name of Thomas Vicary, who suggested that a live chicken, should be tied to a sick persons body so it would be touching the buboes. But there was one condition: the chicken needed to have its bottom shaved! In this was it was believed that the infection would pass from the human to the chicken.
-Cover your buboes with a variety of the following: many things were supposedly good for the oozing sores. For example, it was believed that treacle would hep the sores..but only if it was at least 10 years old?! Other things perhaps are less unheard off, and seen as common treatment for other wounds. Urine was advised because of its ammonia content. In addition, a good rub of tree resin, flower roots and faeces would also help the buboes.
As ridiculous as any of these measures may seem, what we need to understand is that the great lack of knowledge about of the plague drove people to try pretty much anything as a remedy. Those who were desperate would be willing to even drink highly poisonous stuff such as arsenic or mercury. Some thought that by constantly sitting in the warmth by a fire the illness would leave them be. Others thought that abstinence was the best cure – after all this was sent by the wrath of God for their sins, right? – so people would stop eating meat, or having sex. Absolutely anything could appeal to the tormented minds of those living under such precarious circumstances.
In many ways, the Black Death led to the collapse of medieval medicine, however because of this failure came the renewal and first steps towards modern medicine. Public health measures were established to cope with epidemics, many of which are still in use today to control infectious diseases. The rise of modern science and medicine helped the future generations to understand the issues implicated in dealing with diseases in places of high concentration of the population such as towns and cities, and put emphasis in the idea of personal hygiene and public well-being. Interestingly enough, we are still trying to understand truly what the epidemic of the 14th century was – as not all historians and scholars in the subject agree that it was bubonic plague or just such thing. And here is some food for thought: as citizens of the 21st century we still probably look at these treatments as outrageous. However, if an epidemic of such scale was to hit our society, don’t you think that in the face of such brutality and despair some may still try such things? Perhaps we should stop accusing our forebeards of being under developed and stupid…Just trying to survive at the best they could with the resources they had.