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Failed Cures for the Plague

Failed Cures for the Plague

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Throughout history, humanity has faced the daunting challenge of combating diseases with limited knowledge and resources. The Black Death, also known as the plague, was one such disease that devastated populations, leading to a frantic search for cures.

In medieval times, when the Black Death swept across Europe, people turned to a wide array of treatments to combat the scourge. Many of these cures were based on superstition and lacked any real scientific basis, resulting in a trial-and-error approach that often proved ineffective or even harmful.

Among the myriad attempts to fend off the plague, some individuals resorted to using animal remedies or consuming various potions. They would attempt fumigations, believing that purifying the air would ward off the disease.

Bloodletting was a common practice, predicated on the belief that it could rebalance bodily humors. Others concocted pastes made from ingredients like onions or other common herbs, applying them to the boils that characterized the infection.

They also believed in fleeing infected areas or persecuting marginalized groups they irrationally blamed for the spread of the disease.

Religious treatments also emerged, with many seeing the plague as a form of divine punishment. In response, communities would engage in vigils, processions, and public acts of penance in hopes of appeasing what they perceived to be a wrathful deity.

Historical Context

In the mid-14th century, Europe grappled with one of the most devastating pandemics in human history: the Black Death. This section takes a closer look at where it began and the medical knowledge of the time.

Origins of the Black Death

The Black Death, initially thought to have originated from Asia, was a catastrophic epidemic that swept through Europe between 1347-1352.

Trade routes, particularly maritime ones, played a crucial role in the spread of the plague, as carriers including rats and fleas traveled on merchant ships. The result was a rapid dissemination of disease, affecting populations across continents.

Early Medical Understanding

During the time of the Black Death, medical understanding was rudimentary and steeped in theories that predate the scientific era. Physicians subscribed to the four humors theory, which postulated that human health was governed by the balance of bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.

To combat the plague, which was marked visually by swollen lymph nodes, or buboes, a range of cures were attempted.

Remedies, however rooted in desperation more than empirical science, included the application of chopped onions to the buboes or concocting a variety of potions and other home remedies.

The Vicary Method

This common “cure” was named after its inventor, Thomas Vicary. This insane method involved strapping the bum of a live chicken to the boils of a plague victim!

The thinking was that chickens breathed out of their bums, so they would draw the disease out of the patient.

As the chicken got ill, because you know it was strapped to a plague victim and all, the method was thought to be working. So it would be continued with, until the patient or the chicken died.

Religious Practices

Medieval communities believed the Black Death was a manifestation of God’s wrath. To atone for their sins and seek divine intervention, individuals engaged in self-flagellation, literally whipping themselves in public processions.

They hoped that by punishing themselves, they could appease God and end the plague.

Superstitious Rituals

Superstition also played a role in the fight against the Black Death. One common practice was the use of aromatic herbs and flowers.

People carried these items believing they would purify the air and ward off the disease.

Mercury Treatments

In a striking contrast to herbal practices, mercury treatments involved the use of this toxic element, known for its harmful health effects.

  • Topical Application: Mercury was applied directly to the boils that accompanied the plague in hopes of a cure.
  • Fumigation: Patients were sometimes subjected to mercury fumigation, where they inhaled mercury vapor; a practice now recognized as severely hazardous.

Quarantines and Isolation

Quarantines were a cornerstone of the public health response to outbreaks of the plague. Towns and cities would isolate those suspected of having the plague, often in distinct areas like pesthouses or on quarantine islands.

For example, during the Black Death, Venice established one of the first organized quarantine systems, confining ships and their crews for a period before allowing them inland.

Sanitation Efforts

Authorities also recognized the importance of sanitation. During outbreaks, they would instigate rigorous cleaning of the streets and disposal of waste. They believed that miasma, or “bad air”, was a potential cause of the plague, and therefore emphasized the removal of decomposing materials which were thought to corrupt the air.

Even without an understanding of germ theory, these sanitation efforts often had a beneficial effect on the overall health of the population.

Bloodletting Practices

Bloodletting was a common medical practice based on the principle of humoral balance. It involved the removal of a patient’s blood, under the assumption that it would cure or prevent illness.

For plague sufferers, bloodletting was not only ineffective but also weakened them, reducing their chances of survival against the disease. It took centuries for the medical community to discard bloodletting as a valid treatment.

Alchemy and Potions

Alchemists, seeking a panacea, experimented with various substances. They prepared potions using ingredients like crushed minerals, herbs, and sometimes more exotic materials, hoping to discover a miracle cure.

One such potion might have contained mercury or arsenic, both highly toxic, under the belief that their transformative properties could combat the disease.

Astrological Solutions

Astrologers contributed to plague responses by proposing timing and celestial alignment as factors in treatment.

They crafted charts to find auspicious times for preparing and administering remedies. These charts posited that the positions of the planets and stars influenced the efficacy of treatments and could even forecast the spread of the plague.

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