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The Plague (Black Death) How natural products were used in the Medieval Times to protect against the disease.

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

The Black Death

The Black Death

Plague carrying flea

Plague carrying flea

Black rat  carried the flea

Black rat carried the flea

Leather "plague doctor" face mask. The "beak was stuffed with aromatic herbs and essential oils to protect the doctor.but must have been terrifying for the patient.

Leather "plague doctor" face mask. The "beak was stuffed with aromatic herbs and essential oils to protect the doctor.but must have been terrifying for the patient.

Future of Plague control

With greater numbers of immigrants entering the west the chances of the indigenous population catching it is greatly increased when you consider we now have no natural immunity to it. If there is any possibility or warning of a plague infection then I would suggest in investing in a cheap essential oil diffuser and using the oils mentioned above.

The plague (Yersinia pestis) – For those of you who doubt the power of essential oils to treat serious disease, let me tell you two little stories.

At the time of the Black Plague in the 17th century it was recorded in the Royal English Archives, that a band of thieves routinely broke into the houses of plague victims and looted the corpses without ever falling ill with the disease themselves. It transpired that they were a family of perfumers who coated their bodies with oil containing lavender essential oil which they knew protected them from the deadly bacteria. History also shows that the entire town of Bucklersbury completely escaped the plague due to it being the centre of the European Lavender industry. We know that the essential oil of Lavender has microbial properties similar to that of modern antibiotic drugs.

The actual ingredients of the “Four Thieves Vinegar” was a combination of Lavender, rosemary, camphor, nutmeg, sage and cinnamon in a suspension of vinegar and garlic.

(*) In addition this recipe can be extended to offer protection against Cholera and Typhoid together with other lethal toxins.

Frankincense, Juniper *, Angelica, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus *, Clove *, Tea Tree *, Thyme *, Lemon, Camphor and Rose.

People automatically think of the plague and rats. However it was the fleas the rats carried that was the problem. In our modern society rats are an ever increasing problem but the chances of them carrying plague infested fleas is fairly remote. They do however carry Weils disease which is very nasty in itself.

The plague is pretty much unknown in the western world these days but still occurs from time to time in third world countries.

Inmates in overcrowded jails are at risk of contracting bubonic plague. In Madagascar there is the risk of a bubonic plague epidemic unless the island's dirty, crowded jails are disinfected and are currently particularly at risk. Each October, hot humid weather attracts fleas, which transmit the disease from rats and other animals to humans. Madagascar had 256 plague cases and 60 deaths IN 2012, the world's highest recorded number. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva and the Pasteur Institute have worked with local health groups in Madagascar since February 2012 on a campaign to improve prison hygiene. The ICRC said the 3,000 inmates of Antanimora, the main prison in the heart of the capital Antananarivo, live with a huge rat population which spreads infected fleas through food supplies, bedding and clothing. The rats themselves, can go in and out of the jail and also propagate the disease.The prisoners have visitors who can be also infected, and the prisoners are eventually released so there are many ways for the disease to spread. The disease could be treated with antibiotics if detected early, but a lack of facilities and traditional shame over the disease makes this tricky in outlying parts of Madagascar.

Experts say that Africa - especially Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo - accounts for more than 90% of cases worldwide. However in August 2013 a 15-year-old herder died in Kyrgyzstan of bubonic plague - the first case in the country in 30 years.

During the last 20 years, at least three countries experienced outbreaks of human plague after a dormant period of about 30-50 years. These areas were India in 1994 and 2002, Indonesia in 1997 and Algeria in 2003. According to the World Health Organization, the last significant outbreak of bubonic plague was in Peru in 2010 when 12 people were found to have been infected. Because of the wide geographical distribution of outbreaks, there seems no logical reason.

Many people survived the plague by the protection of the Lavender plant. Similar protection can be offered today by planting a thick lavender hedge in the garden or using lavender plants in a window box if you have no garden.

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Discovery work arising from the Crossrail tunneling

As the work deep below London cutting tunnels for the Crosslink draws to a close, the excavations have disclosed many interesting facts concerning the “Plague pits” that were dug in the mid-17th century to dispose of the thousands of corpses.

A great number of the earlier pits were simply bored straight through or by-passed during the construction of the C19th underground railway system and little in the way of archaeological work was carried out.

Some 350 years later DNA testing has for the first time confirmed the identity of the bacteria behind London's Great Plague of 1665-1666.

It's taken a year to confirm initial findings from a suspected Great Plague burial pit during excavation work on the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street using data from about 3,500 burials which have been uncovered.

Testing was carried out in Germany and confirmed the presence of DNA from the Yersinia pestis bacterium - the agent that causes bubonic plague - rather than another pathogen which some authors have previously suggested was the identity of microbes behind historical outbreaks attributed to plague.

Daniel Defoe's 18th century account of the catastrophic event in “A Journal of the Plague Year” described the gruesome fate of Londoners.

"The plague, as I suppose all distempers do, operated in a different manner on differing constitutions; some were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains," Defoe wrote." Others with swellings and tumours in the neck or groin, or armpits, which till they could be broke put them into insufferable agonies and torment; while others, as I have observed, were silently infected."

Evidence of the pathogen had eluded archaeologists but seemed tantalisingly close when a suspected mass grave was discovered last year during a Crossrail dig at the Bedlam burial ground, also known as the New Churchyard, in East London.

Alison Telfer from Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) showed journalists around the area planned for one of the downward escalators going into the future Broadgate ticket hall at Liverpool Street. "We've found about three-and-a-half thousand burials on this site," she told the BBC's Today programme.

"We've been working here for the last five-and-half-years on and off and we're hoping we'll be able to get positive identification of the plague on a number of the individuals. Because of the position of the skeletons, they'd obviously been laid in coffins & put in very respectfully, nobody was thrown in anywhere in presumably what must have been quite a traumatic event."

This revelation is somewhat at odds with Daniel Defoe's version of events: "Tis certain they died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account." Panic and disorder only came towards the end of The Great Plague.

Vanessa Harding, professor of London history at Birkbeck, University of London, describes the experience of Londoners at the time.

"Not many people who actually get it survive but some do. And it seems to be quite easily transferred from person to person even if we're not sure currently about the agency or way in which this actually happens," Prof Harding said.

"But there are also what we might consider public health measures which from their point of view include killing cats and dogs, getting rid of beggars in the streets, trying to cleanse the city in both moral and practical terms. The people who do best are those who get out of London."

The search for the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which causes plague, in a selection of skeletons from the dig continued last year in the osteology department at Mola where all the Liverpool Street finds were stored and examined by Michael Henderson.

"They're carefully boxed, individual elements, legs separately, arms separately, the skulls and the torsos," he explained.

"We excavated in the region of three and a half thousand skeletons, one of the largest archaeologically excavated to this date. A vast data set that can give us really meaningful information."

The bones are laid out in anatomical order. Teeth are removed and sent for ancient DNA analysis at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. "The best thing to sample for DNA is the teeth; they're like an isolated time capsule," said Mr Henderson.

In Germany, molecular palaeopathologist Kirsten Bos drilled out the tooth pulp to painstakingly search for the 17th century bacteria, finally obtaining positive results from five of the 20 individuals tested from the burial pit.

"We could clearly find preserved DNA signatures in the DNA extract we made from the pulp chamber and from that we were able to determine that Yersinia pestis was circulating in that individual at the time of death," she said.

"We don't know why the Great Plague of London was the last major outbreak of plague in the UK and whether there were genetic differences in the past, those strains that were circulating in Europe to those circulating today; these are all things we're trying to address by assembling more genetic information from ancient organisms."

Bos and her team will now continue to sequence the full DNA genome to better understand the evolution and spread of the disease.

There was nothing to identify those found in the mass grave under the Crossrail development but located a short distance away a headstone was found inscribed with the name Mary Godfree who fell victim to the plague. Her interment is recorded in the burial register of St Giles, Cripplegate, on 2nd September 1665.

To reassure anyone worried whether plague bacterium was released from the excavation work or scientific analysis, it can be confirmed that it doesn't survive in the ground.

© 2012 Peter Geekie


frogyfish from Central United States of America on March 06, 2020:

You have published a quite interesting article here. The 'recent' DNA testing of those old plague graves was interesting especially about the teeth being a best definer of DNA. Now i know why the TV researchers always want a tooth to test! Thanks for sharing a great informative article!

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on May 13, 2012:

Dear nishlaverz, I must firstly apologise for the delay in responding to your kind comment. Lavender is one of my all-time favourites. I have abt. 8 different types growing in the garden and I'm lucky enough to live a few miles away from a Lavender nursery in Kent that produce their own essential oils - superb quality.

Do call by again I will always be pleased to see you.

Kind regards Peter

nishlaverz from N.E England on March 16, 2012:

I use Lavender oil for all sorts of things. I love to use it in my bath to relax me after a long day at work. I use it with mint and Eucalyptus when I have a cold. It is probably the most essential of the essential oil's around.

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