Do you mind passing the hand sanitizer? I think I’m coming down with a touch of the plague.

Today, as I sit and tidy up the Plague curriculum for the upcoming ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday I can hear the children in the classroom next to me coughing….. just a bit.   I begin to think, maybe I need to make that appointment to get the flu shot.  I mean, it’s the least I can do to protect myself and the others that come into contact with me, right?  Hmm…,  I wonder.

In the year one thousand three hundred and forty eight when the Black Death set her dark sights upon the unsuspecting West, I wonder what the good people of Europe were thinking?  It sure wasn’t “Pass the hand sanitizer and warm me up a cup of Theraflu.”

The plague boasted the following symptoms: aching limbs, vomiting of blood, and lymph nodes that swelled to the size of chicken eggs before bursting.  I would have been first in line for my plague vaccination, had there been one available at the time. 

The Crow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kessiye

As a plague victim in the Middle Ages, you would count yourself lucky if your family didn’t abandon you in the street to die alone.  If you were really lucky (so to speak) a doctor might pay you a visit.  If you were luckier still, maybe he wouldn’t.  Common treatments for the plague included, but were not limited to:  bleeding by leech or blade (sometimes until there was no blood left), purging by laxative (better to die of dehydration, right?), and various herbal treatments. 

In the stead of drugstores, the Medieval town might have had a local apothecary.  Check out some of the herbs that were used, mostly in vain, to treat the plague:

Thyme – a natural disinfectant used in the “nosegays” carried by doctors in an attempt to ward off the plague.

Rosemary – burned like incense, it was thought to ward off sickness of all types.  It was hung around the neck to protect from the plague.  It was also thought a twig of rosemary could ward off the evil eye.

Sage flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: tanakawho

Sage – among the most important medicinal herbs of Medieval Europe.  No covenant garden would be without a substantial patch of sage growing to treat the ailing masses.

Angelica – according to legend, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the powers of this Nordic herb to the Benedictine monks.  During the Middle Ages it was commonly cultivated in monasteries and used to treat symptoms of the plague.

Lavender – thieves who made a living stealing from the dead and infirm used lavender as an ingredient in their “Four Thieves Vinegar,” a concoction they used to protect and cleanse themselves after a hard night’s work.

During the plague in the seventeenth century, you might have even scored a visit from this guy (pictured below).

17th century plague doctor

And if that wasn’t enough to scare you to death, wait three days and the plague might get you anyway. As the poet Boccaccio said, “one could eat lunch with friends and have dinner with ancestors in paradise.”