Black DeathCantor states that, No one – peasant or aristocrat – was safe from the disease, and once it was contracted, a horrible and painful death wasalmost a certainty. The dead and the dying lay in the streets abandoned byfrightened friends and relatives (482). This certainly paints an accurate andhorrifying picture of the fourteenth century during the plague. The bubonicplague, also known as the Black Death or The Plague, (Hindley 103) was one ofthe major scourges of the Middle Ages. It killed indiscriminately withoutremorse or thought of consequences. Because the plague was so widespread,theories about causes, blame and a variety of supposed cures abounded.
Most ofthese were without basis or fact and relied on myths and rumors. Theories forthe causes and blames came from ignorance and hate, two horrible things marriedby fear. Some of the cures were not much better than the plague itself. Theplague was transmitted to humans by fleas from infected rats that nested inpeople’s roofs (Matthew 154).
Fourteenth century man had no concept of how thedisease was spread or how it could be stopped. The plague was transmitted towestern Europe from China along trade routes (Matthew 154). Once the plague hadreached the coast of Europe, it was soon transmitted to the countryside throughthe commercial trade networks (Matthew 154). The first cases of the plagueoccurred in a European colony called Genoa (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38).
It was”besieged in 1347″ by mongols, who flung plague riddled bodies overthe walls of Genoa. This was considered “an early form of biologicalwarfare” (Blum, Cameron and Barnes 38). According to Matthews,”Experts could do nothing to cure or explain the plague” (154). Thepeople of this period had no idea what they were dealing with.
Even if they hadknown what caused the plague, their medical technology was almost nonexistent,so they could not have invented a cure (Matthew 154). Though the doctors of thetime were unable to cure the disease, or even explain it, they did observe itssymptoms 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 (Herlihy353).
Medieval man also knew that animals could catch the disease from aperson’s material possessions (Herlihy 353) but they never realized they couldcatch the plague from animals. There were three main theories about why theplague had stricken an area. The first is a “corrupted atmosphere” orbad air, the second was the alignment of the planets, and the third the wrath ofGod (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 hadrisen from dead fish (Ziegler 4).
Some believed that the placement of theplanets was the cause of the plague (Ziegler 25). The medical department at theUniversity of Paris told Phillip VI in a report in 1348, that the alignment ofSaturn, Jupiter and Mars on March 20, 1345 was the cause of the plague (Ziegler25). A popular theory was that the plague was the wrath of God. This wassupposedly brought on by sins (Bartel 62). Some sins were worse than others suchas “lust, pride, whoredom” (Bartel 62). There were also othertheories.
The Scottish people thought that the English were being punished forthe terrible things they had done to the Scots in the past. So the Scots invadedEngland while it was weak, “laughing at their enemies”, until they,too, fell prey to the disease (Ziegler 159). The Jewish people were also blamedfor the spread of the disease. Thousands of Jews were murdered as scapegoats(Ziegler 80).
Many supposed cures arose in response to the plague. Some believedthat if they lived moderately, consumed the most delicate foods and wines, andabstained from sex, that their resistance to the plague would be higher (Herlihy354). 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 livetheir lives at an even keel, not too moderate, not too heavy (Herlihy 354). InRowlings’ Everyday Life of Medieval travellers, she states that “Flightbecame increasingly one of the commonest means adopted to escape from thisdreaded 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 madefrom roots and oils was another popular cure that individuals used to clean theair (Bartel 54). According to Bartel, an internal cure was to “take garlicwith, butter, a clove, two or three, according as it shall agree with theirbodies” (54). Some doctors believed that “pure water mixed with agreat 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 “adrink for the plague prepared by Lord Bacon, and approved by QueenElizabeth” (Bartel 55). There were others called flagellants that walkedthe roads whipping themselves to ward off the plague (Wright 153). The realityaccording to Herlihy was that, “In the cure of these illnesses, neither theadvice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do anygood” (353). The Black Death killed about a third of Europe’s population. The reign of terror lasted for twenty years in the fourteenth century (Cantor477). This horrible disease killed young and old, rich and poor.
The plague knewno boundaries. Today we might think that the beliefs of the fourteenth centurywere barbaric and archaic, but it has only been in the last one hundred yearsthat scientists and doctors have discovered the cause of the bubonic plague. Believing that the plague was caused by bad air, the planets positions or theJews or that it could be cured with fire or herbs seemed logical to fourteenthcentury man although it may seem foolish to modern man. BibliographyBartel, Roland, ed. London in Plague and Fire.
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