What Were the Cures for the Black Death
Doomed Attempts to Cure the Black Death
When the Black Death arrived in Europe around the middle of the fourteenth century, there were naturally attempts made to cure the victims. Unfortunately, the problem confronting medieval Europeans was their lack of medical knowledge and complete ignorance of the cause of the epidemic. They had various theories about what caused the plague, all of them wrong. Their attempts at cures ranged from the bizarre to the desperate and were all doomed to failure. Although it happened so many centuries ago, there are enough contemporary accounts and pictures for us to piece together what our ancestors did to try to cure the Black Death. And of course, the plague is still with us today; find out about the modern cures for the Bubonic plague.
Religious Fanaticism During the Black Death
The Church's Cures for the Black Death
Nowadays, illness sends us scurrying to the doctor, but during the fourteenth century, people's first port of call would have been to the priest. Medieval life revolved around religion and the Church. As God was viewed as omnipotent, many people would have believed that the plague was sent by God as a punishment for some earthly transgression. The Church would have endorsed this view, seeing a means to further control the population. Prayer, not medicine, would have seemed to answer to the problem.
The Church assumed a central role in the crisis, organising religious processions, blessing people and relics and telling people to pray and repent their sins. As the death toll rose, it became clear that prayers were not the answer and people began to lose faith in their priests. Religious fanatics responded by urging the population to repent more strongly. Groups of flagellants such as the Brothers of the Cross began roaming the European countryside, moving from town to town, carrying out their violent rituals of self-mortification as penance for men's sins. Actually, the flagellants were helping to spread the plague, a fact which was eventually noticed and their appearance outside towns began to become unwelcome. The Church also found their extreme activities disturbing and they were officially condemned by the Pope in 1349.
The Cruellest "Cure" Of All
Blaming the Jews for the Black Death
One particularly irrational cure for the Black Death was to kill Jews. This arose from the belief that the plague was not actually a disease, but a Jewish conspiracy to poison Christians. Several Jews were tortured by the Count of Savoy and confessed to the plot. News of the alleged poisonings spread through Switzerland and beyond resulting in the burning of thousands of Jews. Not everyone approved of this turn of events; some of the people of Strasbourg came to the aid of their fellow citizens, but were ultimately unsuccessful. The Church also attempted to halt the persecution, but two Papal Bulls issued in 1348 aimed at protecting the Jews failed.
Doctors and the Plague
Medieval medical men had no idea of the actual cause of the plague. Their best guess was that it was caused by bad air. Although this was completely wrong, their bizarre costumes, designed to avoid the contaminated atmosphere, may have given them a small degree of protection.
Doctors wore an enveloping gown with a curious mask that was distinguished by a beak-like nose piece. This beak was filled with sweet-smelling herbs, flowers or sponges soaked in vinegar. The purpose was to counter the foul air and so avoid the plague. In fact, it might have given the doctor some protection against the airborne pneumonic form of the plague, although it would be completely ineffective against the bubonic form, spread by the bite of an infected flea.
Handy Household Black Death Treatments!
Modern Plague Treatment
A small number of people are unlucky enough to contract plague every year. The key to their successful recovery is early treatment; getting treatment within the first week of the illness is paramount. Once in hospital, patients are isolated and treated with antibiotics. With treatment, the chances of recovery are good, the mortality rate being between 1-14%.
Medieval Cures for the Plague
To modern eyes, the medieval cures for the epidemic appear crude and bizarre. It's difficult to see the rationale behind many of them and possibly there was none. People were desperate and were driven to try anything, no matter how odd, to avoid death. Some of their cures included:
- The medieval favourite cure-all: bleeding the victim.
- Placing a live hen against the buboes.
- Lancing the buboes to release the pus (this may have been because victims whose buboes burst of their own accord sometimes survived). Unfortunately they tended to put strange mixtures (including human excrement) on to the open wound, doubtless just introducing more infection.
- Making a poultice (mixture) of butter, onion and garlic and placing it on the buboes.
- Drinking urine.
- Drinking a mixture of ground up roasted egg shells and marigolds.
- Washing in vinegar and rose petals.
- Burning or spreading herbs and spices to "clean" the air.
- Using traditional herbs and flowers to treat the symptoms - for instance mint for sickness, rose for headaches.
Later in the plague, some towns did introduce quarantine and others cleaned up their streets, both of which had some rational basis.
How Did the Black Death Epidemic End
Eventually, the outbreak of plague ended, though not because of any intervention. It seems likely that those who survived did so because their bodies were immune. Once the plague had killed off those without immunity, the epidemic (but not the Plague - it still exists today) was over. It's effects were far reaching and helped shape European society anew. Fortunately, although there were several more Plague epidemics, none were on such a cataclysmic scale.