“Our merrymaking will keep it away”
Medieval people had no understanding of how the Black Death spread, or how to cure it. Neither did they consider the disease to be infectious, the common belief being that it was caused by bad air. They did, however, at least generally understand that isolation was the best way to defend oneself against the plague.
As a preventive measure some advised people to think pleasant thoughts. Others believed inaction helped; doing as little as possible, and avoiding sudden movements or physical exertion.
Certain foods were purported to prevent the disease, such as eating figs (before breakfast), lettuce, or even powdered emeralds. In the Arab world, people were advised to eat cooked plums (to prevent constipation). Breakfasting on pickled onions, or sucking on bitter pomegranates, were also recommended by some.
Above: People believed the Black Death was punishment from God. Flagellants believed they could avoid this by whipping themselves in public rituals, depicted here in a fifteenth century woodcut.
1300 – the year Pope Boniface decreed that the mutilation of corpses was forbidden, an attempt to stem tomb-raiding and relic hunting. This had the secondary effect of severely reducing or completely stopping surgery, dissections and post-mortems, thereby reducing medical understanding when the plague struck.
Attempts to Prevent and Cure the Plague
Medieval doctors had no understanding of the way the Black Death was spreading, and different approaches to avoid the plague were taken and advised. These included methods as extreme as bathing in urine or vinegar, or putting dead animals (known as “Stinks”) in the home.
Filling the air they breathed with bad smells was believed by some to ward off the plague, and Stinks were just one approach people took. Others included breathing in the smells from their latrines (their toilets).
Others believed that pleasant smells were the way to protect themselves from ‘poisonous air’. They would fill their homes with plants and flowers, or burn sweet-smelling herbs or scented wood, such as rosemary, ash, juniper and vine.
Once infected, the lancing of buboes or bloodletting were offered up as potential cures. Other methods were less extreme but equally ineffective, including the wearing of lucky charms, the ringing of church bells, and dancing. Some turned to witchcraft, following guidance to hold a live hen next to the bubo in order to draw the pestilence out of the body.
We have seen our neighbours die and seen them die daily. But since the plague has not entered our town, we hope our merrymaking will keep it away. That is why we dance. – Saint Dennis, quoting a French local.
Did You Know?
Pope Clement VI (1291–1352) suggested that the risk of catching the plague could be reduced by limiting conversations with others, with the exception of “those whose breath is sweet”.