Bubonic PlagueCantor states that,
No one – peasant or aristocrat – was safe from the disease [bubonic plague], and once it was contracted, a horrible and painful death was almost a certainty. The dead and the dying lay in the streets abandoned by frightened friends and relatives (482).
This certainly paints an accurate and horrifying picture of the fourteenth century during the plague. The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death or The Plague, (Hindley 103) was one of the major scourges of the Middle Ages. It killed indiscriminately without remorse or thought of consequences. Because the plague was so widespread, theories about causes, blame and a variety of supposed cures abounded. Most of these were without basis or fact and relied on myths and rumors. Theories for the causes and blames came from ignorance and hate, two horrible things married by fear. Some of the cures were not much better than the plague itself.
The plague was transmitted to humans by fleas from infected rats that nested in people’s roofs (Matthew 154). Fourteenth century man had no concept of how the disease was spread or how it could be stopped. The plague was transmitted to western Europe from China along trade routes (Matthew 154). Once the plague had reached the coast of Europe, it was soon transmitted to the countryside through the commercial trade networks (Matthew 154). The first cases of the plague occurred in a European colony called Genoa (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38). It was besieged in 1347 by mongols, who flung plague riddled bodies over the walls of Genoa. This was considered an early form of biological warfare (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38). According to Matthews, Experts could do nothing to cure or explain the plague (154). The people of this period had no idea what they were dealing with. Even if they had known what caused the plague, their medical technology was almost nonexistent, so they could not have invented a cure (Matthew 154). Though the doctors of the time were unable to cure the disease, or even explain it, they did observe its symptoms and try to supply theories of the plague’s cause (Matthew 154-5). People were aware that if you came in contact with the sick or their belongings (clothing, bedding, etc…) you would soon be afflicted with the disease (Herlihy 353). Medieval man also knew that animals could catch the disease from a person’s material possessions (Herlihy 353) but they never realized they could catch the plague from animals. There were three main theories about why the plague had stricken an area. The first is a corrupted atmosphere or bad air, the second was the alignment of the planets, and the third the wrath of God (Ziegler 3). Some people said there were clouds that carried the plague (Ziegler 3-4). Others believed that it was a cloud made from steam that had risen from dead fish (Ziegler 4). Some believed that the placement of the planets was the cause of the plague (Ziegler 25). The medical department at the University of Paris told Phillip VI in a report in 1348, that the alignment of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars on March 20, 1345 was the cause of the plague (Ziegler 25). A popular theory was that the plague was the wrath of God. This was supposedly brought on by sins (Bartel 62). Some sins were worse than others such as lust, pride, whoredom (Bartel 62). There were also other theories. The Scottish people thought that the English were being punished for the terrible things they had done to the Scots in the past. So the Scots invaded England while it was weak, laughing at their enemies, until they, too, fell prey to the disease (Ziegler 159). The Jewish people were also blamed for the spread of the disease. Thousands of Jews were murdered as scapegoats (Ziegler 80).
Many supposed cures arose in response to the plague. Some believed that if they lived moderately, consumed the most delicate foods and wines, and abstained from sex, that their resistance to the plague would be higher (Herlihy 354). There were others that believed the exact opposite. They believed in heavy drinking, and lots of cheer and singing (Herlihy 354) to keep them safe. Still others chose to live their lives at an even keel, not too moderate, not too heavy (Herlihy 354). In Rowlings’ Everyday Life of Medieval travellers, she states that Flight became increasingly one of the commonest means adopted to escape from this dreaded disease (118). People also believed that if you burned fires, with stinkpots filled with various herbs and other natural ingredients, that it would correct the infectious air (Bartel 53). Perfumes made from roots and oils was another popular cure that individuals used to clean the air (Bartel 54). According to Bartel, an internal cure was to take garlic with, butter, a clove, two or three, according as it shall agree with their bodies (54). Some doctors believed that pure water mixed with a great deal of salt was a cure (Bartel 55). Royalty got into the cure game with the King’s Majesty’s Excellent Receipt for the Plague and a drink for the plague prepared by Lord Bacon, and approved by Queen Elizabeth (Bartel 55). There were others called flagellants that walked the roads whipping themselves to ward off the plague (Wright 153). The reality according to Herlihy was that, In the cure of these illnesses, neither the advice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do any good (353).
The Black Death killed about a third of Europe’s population. The reign of terror lasted for twenty years in the fourteenth century (Cantor 477). This horrible disease killed young and old, rich and poor. The plague knew no boundaries. Today we might think that the beliefs of the fourteenth century were barbaric and archaic, but it has only been in the last one hundred years that scientists and doctors have discovered the cause of the bubonic plague. Believing that the plague was caused by bad air, the planets positions or the Jews or that it could be cured with fire or herbs seemed logical to fourteenth century man although it may seem foolish to modern man.
Bartel, Roland, ed. London in Plague and Fire. BostonD.C. Heath and Company, 1957.
Blum, Jerome, Cameron, Rondo, and Barnes, Thomas G. The European World A History. BostonLittle, Brown and Company, 1970.
Cantor, Norman. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Herlihy, David, ed. Medieval Culture and Society. New York Walker and Company, 1968.
Hindley, Geoffrey. The Medieval Establishment. New YorkG.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
Matthew, Donald. Atlas of Medieval Europe. New YorkFacts on File, Inc., 1983.
Rowling, Marjorie. Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers. LondonB.T. Batsford LTD, 1971.
Wright, Esmond, ed. The Medieval and Renaissance World. Secaucus, NJChartwell Books Inc., 1979.
Ziegler, Phillip. The Black Death. Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.Alan Sutton Publishing, 1991.