Posted By Jenny Zeek on April 16, 2011
The Black Death, the plague, the pestilence, whatever you choose to call it was a bacterial disease that swept through Europe beginning in 1347. In five years it had killed between thirty and fifty percent of the population. Some estimates think the death tole to have been even higher. It was caused by the bacteria Yesinia Pestis and was transmitted through fleas that lived on the blood of infected rats. Genoese trading ships brought the disease back from the east and the pandemic began. Victims of the plague suffered from large, swollen lymph nodes called buboes in the armpits and groin. Purplish black splotches began to appear on the skin of the infected person and they suffered a horrible and painful death within a few days. The plague was transmitted not only from person to person but through the goods of the infected, such as clothing. There is some debate as to whether or not the Black Death was indeed the bubonic plague or a pneumonic plague but the general consensus seems to be that the plague was bubonic.
Though the Black Death is itself an interesting topic the suggested cures for it are even more fascinating. Medieval medicine was rather barbaric and most of it was contradictory to what we know about medicine today. Good hygiene was considered to be a killer, literally, and barbers often cut off limbs as well as hair when the need arose. Those nice red and white barber poles we see today? They symbolized blood and bandages in the middle ages.
People were so terrified by the plague and the sheer number of deaths that occurred that they would try almost anything to get rid of it. It must have been a terrifying ordeal, watching your neighbors and relatives fall ill and die within a few days. No cause, no cure, the Black Death was an all powerful terrorist and killer that wiped out whole towns within weeks. People thought that the disease was a punishment from God for the sinfulness of the world. In order to rid themselves of this holy curse some took to beating, or flagellating themselves in public as a way to do penance. They hoped that their public humiliation would reach the heart of God and that he would put a stop to the horror around them. These groups were called flagellants and began traveling from village to village stripping off their clothes and flogging themselves. They preached a message of hate and blamed sinners, Jews, and witches for bringing the wrath of God down on the people. They wore white robes and hats and looked eerily similar to a modern day group that preaches hatred and intolerance…
Many of the proposed cures for the plague involved filthiness. It was thought at the time that bad things were driven out by other bad things. Some doctors suggested that the smells of the latrine, (the human waste pit) would drive out the disease. Bathing in or drinking your own urine was thought to be a sure fire cure and should be done in conjunction with the placing of a live hen on or next to the buboes. Picture a sick person surrounded by chickens and being bathed in pee, not a nice thought is it? Bathing with soap and water was certainly not encouraged as warm water would open the pores and let in evil humors.
Popular ingestible cures included arsenic and amber, (poisoning oneself is always good for you!) old treacle, and a concoction of egg shells and marigolds. Some doctors thought that lancing the boils and applying poultices would draw out the poison. Poultices were sometimes made of onion and garlic or human waste and the roots of white lilies. One can only imagine the stench of a house where a sick person who has not bathed in months is smeared in human excrement and surrounded by hens. Human feces and an open would were not a good combination either so even if the person survived the plague they would likely die of the infection brought on by the proposed cure. Sort of makes you glad you live in a world that is scientifically advanced and where antibiotics exist!
The Black Plague by Philip Zeigler