Blood, Emeralds, Snakes and Poo: Strange Cures for Europe’s Medieval Plague

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Originating in China in the 1300s, the plague arrived in Europe on a ship, bringing horrifying death in its wake. The Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, killing at least a third of its population, or around 25 to 30 million people. The black buboes or black, swollen lymph nodes of plague victims gave the disease its name. Throughout the medieval period and into the 17th century, localized epidemics continued to decimate populations in Europe.

The desperate times of the medieval plague called for desperate plague remedies. Bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodent fleas. But that wasn’t known until 1894. So in medieval Europe plague outbreaks were attributed to a variety of causes, some kinds of scientists, some religious, and some that were just plain weird! In equal measure, the strange plague cures and preventions were absurd and revolting. It is unlikely that they did the victims any good; the majority, in fact, are likely to have caused harm.

Vinegar potions became popular in Europe thanks to a bunch of thieves who swore by them, and vinegar really does come in handy! (Olybrius / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Thieves used vinegar potions to break into plague houses

Vinegar potions gained popularity in France because a gang of thieves who looted the houses of the dead never got sick from their special potion. It consisted of a vinegar, garlic and medicinal herbs.

Rubbing the body with vinegar alone was also believed to grant protection against the plague. The parts were cleaned with vinegar before being exchanged. Considering the disinfectant properties of vinegar, known since Greek times, plus the antimicrobial properties of herbs, spices, and garlic, this should count as one of the healthiest answers to this terrifying disease.

The cure for raw onion plague

Rubbing a raw cut onion on the body was another popular way to prevent or stop the plague. It was hoped that this would eliminate the infection and fight the miasma. Although medieval European societies and citizens may have been wrong in attributing the plague to noxious fumes or miasma, they weren’t entirely off the mark in thinking that respiration played a part in its spread. Pneumonic plague, as opposed to bubonic plague spread by the bite of infected rat fleas, is spread by respiratory droplets.

The onions may not have provided a cure, but the treatment was harmless enough. A floundering and frenzied world resorted to many far more bizarre and potentially harmful measures that would have only hastened the passage into the afterlife.

In medieval times and even before it was believed that bloodshed brought out evil and this was also true of the plague and after the plague!  (Anneke / Adobe Stock)

In medieval times and even before it was believed that bloodshed brought out evil and this was also true of the plague and after the plague! ( Anneke /Adobe Stock)

Plague: the four humors and bloodshed

Based on the Greek physician Galen (lived 129-210 AD) theory of the four bodily “humors”, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, and the need to maintain a balance between them for a good health, bloodletting was a common medical practice. procedure for all diseases. Although the Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna; 980-1037) proposed the germ theory as early as 1025, it was discarded in favor of Galen’s concepts regarding the plague.

So when the plague struck, doctors automatically turned to their favorite remedy. Special bleeding knives called “fleams” were used liberally or else leeches were applied to drain excess blood from a plague patient and restore his body to its humoral balance. Alas, the results were neither uplifting nor effective. Bloodletting only served to further weaken a plague-ridden body and possibly spread more infections through unsterilized instruments.

London Plague Belief: Smoking a pipe would help!

The belief that miasma or a very unpleasant or unhealthy odor or vapor caused or at least contributed to the plague gave rise to another preventive measure which was widely used during the Great Plague of 1665-1666 in London. To “purify” the air, large bonfires were burning day and night, by order of the authorities. And in the houses too, the citizens did not let their lights go out. And that’s not all !

To keep germ-free air ‘clean’ in their lungs, many Londoners took to smoking pipes and forced children to do the same!

The plague doctors weren't very good at medicine when it came to new things like the Black Death and so their crazy 'cures' became popular with other 'doctors'.  For example, the Vicary Method was devised by a quack doctor in England who believed that chickens breathe through their butts!  (Welcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

The plague doctors weren’t very good at medicine when it came to new things like the Black Death and so their crazy ‘cures’ became popular with other ‘doctors’. For example, the Vicary Method was devised by a quack doctor in England who believed that chickens breathe through their butts! (Welcome images / DC BY 4.0 )

Vicary Method: Plague Bums and Feathers!

One of the strangest remedies for the plague was the Vicary Method, so named after Thomas Vicary, the charlatan who devised it. It consisted in plucking the feathers from the buttocks of a living chicken and attaching it to the patient, the rump touching the buboes!

The logic behind this strange remedy was the medieval belief that chickens breathed through their buttocks and their feathers would be able to extract the toxin. If the patient died during the cure, so be it. If the chicken died first, another chicken simply replaced it. The extra bacteria released by the chicken would have only spread more infections to an already weakened body.

Human faeces smeared on plague buboes

By far the most repugnant treatment for the plague was to open the buboes and treat them with a poultice of human excrement (which might be the patient’s own, if they were in a particular condition) mixed with other things . The results are not pleasant to imagine.

Some Raw Reptiles Could Wipe Out The Plague

Acting on the principle of like attracting, snakes were chopped up and applied to plague buboes in the hope that the bad disease would be sucked in by the poisonous beasts.

Similarly, a dead, withered toad hung around a person’s neck, even after death, was also considered an effective means of extracting poisonous fumes from a patient’s breast.

For the wealthy in Europe, protected country estates and ground emeralds or gold were the best means of avoiding or surviving the plague.  (Аружан Жамбулатова / CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the wealthy in Europe, protected country estates and ground emeralds or gold were the best means of avoiding or surviving the plague. (Аружан Жамбулатова / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

For the plague rich: emeralds and gold!

For the wealthy, aside from fleeing to their country estates, where they often spread the disease further from the big cities, there were many expensive remedies to choose from. Crushed emeralds and potable gold were among them.

Then there were the “so called” unicorn horns which were ground into a powder called alicorn and mixed with water for the gullible wealthy to drink. It is thought to have been made from narwhal or rhinoceros tusks.

Severe beatings to get the plague out!

Stemming from the belief that the plague was a visitation from God for sins committed by man, groups of flagellants roamed the streets shirtless, whipping each other in public penance. Whips were often multi-tailed and tied with nails.

The pope eventually banned flagellations as ineffective and upsetting to the public, but by then the flagellants had done much to spread the plague wherever they went. So do religious processions and mass petitions for God’s mercy.

Religious charms, amulets, prayer and fasting may not have helped spread the disease, but they proved equally useless in the fight against the plague.

In this miniature by the Flemish painter Pierart dou Tielt (painted circa 1340-1360), Jews are burned alive because they were considered plague mongers or poisoners!  (Pierart dou Tielt / Public domain)

In this miniature by the Flemish painter Pierart dou Tielt (painted circa 1340-1360), Jews are burned alive because they were considered plague mongers or poisoners! (Pierart du Tielt / Public domain )

The Plague’s Horrific Abuses Against Migrants, Jews, and Misfits

Jews, the infirm, gypsies and other marginalized communities were often blamed for the plague based on the accusation of poisoning public wells with the disease. They were either driven out or tortured and killed.

It was only saner voices like Pope Clement VI who pointed out that since many Jews had contracted the plague themselves, they could not be held responsible for causing it.

Meanwhile, raw sewage and garbage continued to be discharged into the open. And the bodies piled up in the streets before being carted in mass graves. The conditions were perfect for the rats to proliferate and multiply and for the plague to rage until it died out, only to return as soon as it found a new, unexposed population. It was not until the late 17th century that the repeated cycles of plague finally came to an end, perhaps as conditions became more hygienic. An effective remedy in the form of antibiotics came much later. In 2021, around 5,000 poor people around the world died from the plague!

Top Image: The Black Death or Bubonic Plague killed millions of people and was completely impossible for “doctors” to understand, let alone treat. But they invented all sorts of remedies for the plague, from the most sensible to completely crazy ideas! Source: illustrious /Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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