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What Were the Cures for the Black Death

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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

This contemporary manuscript tells of how around 200 Flaggelants arrived at Doornik from Bruges.  Although the people of Doornik had never seen such acts of penance, they joined in, thanking God.

This contemporary manuscript tells of how around 200 Flaggelants arrived at Doornik from Bruges. Although the people of Doornik had never seen such acts of penance, they joined in, thanking God.

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

The persecution of Jews during the Black Death happened across mainland Europe

The persecution of Jews during the Black Death happened across mainland Europe

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!

Butter, eggs, roses, vinegar and onions were amongst the cures for the Black Death.

Butter, eggs, roses, vinegar and onions were amongst the cures for the Black Death.

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.

Comments

Beth on October 03, 2016:

this helped in my Daughters schoolwork! thanks very much!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on August 05, 2015:

Edit to above, as I can't seem to - second hub is What Were the Symptoms of the Black Death.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on August 05, 2015:

Thanks Raevyn14 - this is one of a series of hubs - septicemic and pneumonic plague is mentioned in those - see here https://discover.hubpages.com/education/What-Were-... and here https://hubpages.com/hub/What-Were-the-Causes-of-t... The second one in particular mentions mortality rates. Thanks for commenting.

Raevyn14 from Tecumseh, Oklahoma on July 28, 2015:

Actually the black death was not just the bubonic plague. It was also the Septicemic and Pneumonic plagues. The bubonic did not have the highest death rates. Bubonic was 30-50% chance of death, Pneumonic was 80-90% of death and Septicemic was 100% death rate. The plague spread easier in summer and died out in the winter. Most of these aren't that hard to believe. Because in the old days of medicine, there wasn't a plan. It was just try something and if that person died, they tweaked the original plan and tried it again until they got it right.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on February 06, 2015:

So glad to hear that!

Man that loves history on February 06, 2015:

So helpful

Judi Brown (author) from UK on November 11, 2014:

Glad the hub helped Ella - and yes, they had some very odd ideas indeed!

ella on November 11, 2014:

This is really interesting!

They had some really weird ideas back then.

This really helped me do my school work thanks so much judi bee.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 30, 2014:

So glad this was helpful :-)

Kj Huggs :) on May 28, 2014:

thanks so much for the info! I have a HASS (Humanities And Social Sciences) assignment due next week and this has really helped

Thanks heaps!:)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 17, 2014:

You are welcome!

Dick Richards on May 16, 2014:

Thanks for the very useful info

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 16, 2013:

I published this hub on 6 June 2012. It was last updated on 1 August 2012. Why do you ask?

mary on October 15, 2013:

what was the spectic or at least month that this was published

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 27, 2012:

Hi Anurag2008 - thank you very much! Yours is the second comment on one of my Black Death hubs that has mentioned Nostradamus. I wonder if his spray acted as a flea repellent?

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

Anurag Ghosh on June 27, 2012:

Brilliant Hub. Michel de Nostradame (Yep, Nostradamus) had his own unique way to protect him against the Black Plague. He prepared a medicine from rose petals and various other herbs and used to spray it all over his body before going to out to meet someone.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 14, 2012:

Hi Simone - it really is a difficult one to fathom - what were they thinking!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, always appreciated :-)

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 13, 2012:

That hen cure absolutely cracks me up! This was a fascinating read. Awesome Hub, Judi Bee!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 08, 2012:

Yuk, a plague egg!

StellaSee from California on June 08, 2012:

That would be hilarious, like they were thinking ‘it’s going to hatch!’ XD

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 08, 2012:

Hi Just History - Henry really was loathsome in so many ways! Generally, people fleeing just spread it further, but the advice to "leave, go far way, come back slowly" must have been very tempting.

Thanks for stopping by, much appreciated :-)

Just History from England on June 08, 2012:

It must have been so scary- like when Anne Boleyn got the sweating sickness and Henry deserted her! Imagine it would have been spread in hours- once your living quarters were infested with plague carrying fleas that would have been that , voted up and interesting

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 08, 2012:

Hi vespwoolf - it is difficult to find any sort of rationale behind some of these cures. As for urine, I know that some people are convinced it is good for you and drink some of their own every day. I just can't even imagine getting past the "yuk" factor there, so even if it is good for you, I won't be trying it!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on June 08, 2012:

My goodness! Some of these "cures" are just as bad as the disease! I've always been fascinated by this period of history. Unfortunately, ignorance and false religion complicated the tragic circumstances. Interestingly, here in Peru urine drinking is considered an effective treatment for all types of ailments. I wonder about the origin of that cure??

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi theraggededge - really glad you enjoy reading them, I love writing them!

Thanks, as always, for your comments :-)

Bev G from Wales, UK on June 07, 2012:

Fascinating stuff, Judi Bee. I love your history Hubs!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi StellaSee - I have no idea what the thinking behind the live hen was - it's really strange. They thought the hen would draw off the pus from the buboe, but why I can't say. May be because the buboe was like an egg? The hen would reabsorb it? Who knows!

Great to hear from you again, thanks very much :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi GoodLady - for all my moaning about the modern world, it's definitely got its advantages, medicine being just one of them. Can't imagine the horror of living through times like these.

Thanks very much for your comments, always appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi UnnamedHarald - I think that the Spanish Flu killed more people than WW1 did, so I yes, I would agree with you. Got one more Black Death hub to go, hope you enjoy that one too.

Thanks for your comments, always good to hear from you :-)

StellaSee from California on June 07, 2012:

Hi again Judi, its interesting how people used to think religion and magic was thought to help with medicine (well I guess this might still be true if it's in the jungles of Papua New Guinea or something like that) I wonder why they thought the live hen would help with the buboes..

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on June 07, 2012:

Just a ghastly tale - well told of course. What horrendous times they were. Thank you so much for the history lesson; I do get so much out of it/them!

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 07, 2012:

Another excellent hub on the plague. It's hard to imagine such death. Perhaps the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 is the worst in living memory?

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi WD Curry 111 - the thing is, I'v just finished some more cookies. It's a dreadful HubPages habit I am falling into - write on HubPages, eat cookies whilst doing it. My soul may be feeling good, but I won't be looking good!

WD Curry 111 from Space Coast on June 07, 2012:

Cookie? Some things are good for the soul, regardless. I will read your other pieces.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi kelley - my pleasure, I could give history lessons (after my own fashion) all day long! Lots of plague sites around London, and indeed all over England and Europe - it was a huge event.

Thanks for stopping by, always appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi joanveronica - yes, a clever lady gave me some good advice about "groups" and it was too good to pass up! Just one more to go in this series - hopefully by the weekend, we shall see.

Once again, thanks for your comments and advice - much appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi shea - that's really interesting, glad she is OK. One of the points that the researchers who doubted that the Black Death was actually bubonic plague made was that it was too cold in Europe for fleas to survive. Guess your friend contracting it in Alaska kind of proves them wrong!

Thanks very much for your comments, much appreciated :-)

kelleyward on June 07, 2012:

Thanks for this history lesson Judi Bee! I enjoyed reading this. Reminded me of the time I visited London and the tour guide talked about the plague. Take care, Kelley

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on June 07, 2012:

Aha, I perceive a "group" has been formed with these Hubs on the Black Death! Great result, now we can all stop searching around for the other parts of the series! Congratulations on a well written article, very interesting and thought provoking! Voted up, and everything except funny.

shea duane from new jersey on June 07, 2012:

I have a friend who actually got the plague! She is fine now, but contracted it on a trip to Alaska (of all places). Interestign hub.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 07, 2012:

Hi WD Curry - Well, if you are feeling inspired, hope you read my other two Black Death hubs! Will our medical field seem outdated - I sincerely hope so, may be in another few hundred years we can say goodbye to cancer etc. I think what will seem primitive is our current insistence on carrying on behaviour which we know is bad for us (over-eating, smoking etc) regardless of the health implications. Some of our behaviour is as mad as the medieval cures, I think (she writes, reaching for another cookie!)

Thanks so much for commenting, I appreciate it :-)

WD Curry 111 from Space Coast on June 07, 2012:

This is an interesting read and an inspiration to study more. I wondered while reading . . . will our medical field seem ignorant, primitive, and problematic in 700 years?

Cool photo.