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The Black Death: The Medical Response

One reason the plague was so devastating was that medieval medicine had no answers to what it was caused by or how to fight it. The plague appeared in two forms. The bubonic form caused buboes under the arms and around the groin and neck, and usually spread during the warm summers, when fleas were more active. The pneumonic variety spread during cold weather, when people were more vulnerable to colds and pneumonia. It attacked the weakened respiratory systems of the ill, and spread much like a cold, from person to person through coughing. It was much more deadly than the bubonic plague, killing 95% of its victims within a few days after reception. It spread so quickly that people believed you could become sick just by looking into the eyes of an infected person.

Many theories developed about how to combat the Black Death. People were told to avoid low, marshy areas and coastal areas where poisonous air could settle or drift in. Doctors told people to leave the cities and remain secluded from others. Some suggested purifying the air by burning fragrant woods or flowers and herbs. Bathing was discouraged because it would open pores to the diseased air, however, the bathing of hands and feet with vinegar and rosewater was encouraged. A moderate diet free of easily spoiled food was advisable, along with spices such as myrrh, saffron, and pepper or vegetables like onions, leeks, and garlic to be eaten in the evening. The correct sleeping position was important: sleeping on the back meant that the “corrupt” air could enter through the nostrils to the lungs. It was best to shift from side to side during the night to keep a balance.

Once someone came down with the plague, there was little that the doctors could do. An Italian doctor, Chalin de Vinario, admitted that “Every pronounced case of the plague is incurable.” The doctors realized the huge risks they were taking by exposing themselves to the disease, and so charged expensive fees for treating patients. Some doctors even fled from the victims, afraid that they would contract the disease.

The most popular treatment was bleeding. The physicians believed that blood carried the plague through the body, and so by cutting the veins leading to infected areas, they were removing the infection from the body. Sometimes doctors would treat the buboes directly, by applying a plaster or poultice or lancing the buboes and then applying the mixtures. Other treatments included potions, pills, or compounds. One even included making a mixture of expensive spices and powdered pearls or emeralds. Although this probably did not help, it may have had a “placebo” effect, as patients believed that the more expensive the treatment, the more effective it must be. Most of these concoctions were harmless, and even soothing, but did not aid in fighting the plague.

The Effects on England The Impact

History of England