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


October 21, 2008
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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.”

Kat
Authored By Kat Havens

Kat has been both the spokesperson for the CSI: The Experience exhibit and project manager for the Imperial Rome exhibit and has a love of all things historical and cultural. She is responsible for the Xplorations summer camp program, coordinating weekday labs during the school year, writing department curriculum and presenting at teacher trainings. Kat has worked at the Museum since 1996.

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

  1. Nicole says:

    I love this part of history. There are all sorts of interesting side stories. Do you know about the Yellow Fever epideimic in America?

  2. David says:

    You stated “…some of the herbs that were used, mostly in vain,…”. Knowing the cure now is antibiotics, were any herbs that the apothecaries whipped up effective at all for treatment or prevention of the plague?

  3. Kathleen Havens says:

    As a matter of fact, I do know about the Yellow Fever epidemic in America. A very famous outbreak happened in Philidelphia in 1793. It just so happens that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton both fled the then capital city to avoid becoming infected.

    Bleeding and purging were still being used to treat sickness during the Yellow Fever outbreak. The wheels of change turn slowly in medicine.

  4. Kathleen Havens says:

    David, thank you for your smart question.

    While germ theory and antibiotics are concepts we are quite familiar with in the 21st century, they would have been totally unheard of just a little over 110 years ago or so.

    People of the past would have few options to choose from in battling even the most mundane illnesses, let alone something as devastating as the plague.

    While herbs and other “homeopathic” remedies can be quite helpful at boosting the immune system and serving in a prophylactic sense as antiseptics or germ killers, they are woefully inadequate when used in battling a disease that has “set up shop”.

    Not to belittle herbs and homeopathy, both of which have been used for thousands of years, but I’ll take my medicine modern, thank you very much!

  5. alex says:

    save to my Bookmarks 🙂

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