How to Avoid the Plague

Two Dozen Tips That May or May Not Help

Dance of Death
Dance of Death from Hartman Schedel's Chronicle of the World (1493), believed to have been made by Michael Wolgemut. Public Domain

The bubonic plague that ravaged the world in the Middle Ages is still with us in the modern world, but medical knowledge has increased enough so that we now know what causes it and how to successfully treat it. Modern-day remedies for the plague involve the liberal application of antibiotics like streptomycin, tetracycline, and sulfonamides. Plague is very often fatal, and people with the disease may need addition symptom relief, including a source of oxygen and respiratory support, as well as medications to maintain adequate blood pressure.

12 Medieval Tips that Probably Didn't Help

In the middle ages, though, there were no known antibiotics, but there were plenty of home and doctor-prescribed remedies. If you had the plague and were able to get a doctor to visit you, he would likely suggest one or more of the following, none of which would do any good at all.

  1. Rub onions, vinegar, garlic, herbs, or a chopped up snake on the boils
  2. Cut up a pigeon or chicken and rub the parts over your entire body
  3. Apply leeches to the buboes
  4. Sit in a sewer or rub human excrement on the body
  5. Take a bath in urine
  6. Whip yourself to show God that you are penitent for your sins
  7. Drink vinegar, arsenic, and/or mercury
  8. Eat crushed minerals such as emeralds
  9. Infuse your house with herbs or incense to purify it
  10. Persecute the people you don't like and think might have cursed you
  11. Carry sweet-smelling spices like ambergris (if you are wealthy) or plain herbs (if you are not)
  12. Suffer through repeated purges or bloodletting

One Tip That Might Have Helped: Theriac

The universal recommended medication for the plague in the medieval period was called theriac or London treacle. Theriac was a medicinal compound, a medieval version of remedies first concocted by classical Greek doctors for a number of ills.

Theriac was made up of a complex mixture of multiple ingredients, indeed some recipes had 80 or more ingredients, but most of them included significant amounts of opium. Compounds were made up of a wide variety of dietary supplements, infusions of scabious or dandelion juice; figs, walnuts or fruit preserved in vinegar; rue, sorrel, sour pomegranate, citrus fruit and juice; aloes, rhubarb, absinth juice, myrrh, saffron, black pepper and cumin, cinnamon, ginger, bayberry, balsam, hellebore and a  whole lot more. The ingredients were mixed with honey and wine to make a thick, syrupy cordial-like consistency, and the patient was to dilute it in vinegar and drink it every day, or at least two to three times a week before meals.

Theriac comes from the English word "treacle" and was said to cure fevers, prevent internal swellings and blockages, alleviate heart problems, treat epilepsy and palsy, induce sleep, improve digestion, heal wounds, protect against snake and scorpion bites and rapid dogs and poisons of all sorts. Who knows? Get the right combination and the plague victim might feel better, anyway.

12 Tips that Would Have Worked 

Interestingly, we now know enough about the plague to go back in time and make some suggestions to Medieval people on how to avoid getting it. Most of them are only available to people rich enough to follow the directions: stay far away from people and other animals that carry fleas.

  1. Keep some clean clothes tightly folded and bound up in cloth treated with mint or pennyroyal, preferably in a cedar chest far from all animals and vermin.
  2. At the first whisper of plague in the area, flee any populated town or village and head for an isolated villa, far from any trade routes, with your cedar chest.
  3. Vigilantly clean every last corner of your villa, killing all rats and burning their corpses.
  4. Use plenty of mint or pennyroyal to discourage fleas, and allow no cats or dogs to come near you.
  5. Under no circumstances enter an enclosed community like a monastery or board a ship
  6. Once away from all human contact, wash in extremely hot water, change into your clean clothes, and burn the clothes you traveled in.
  7. Keep a minimum distance of 25 feet from any other human being to avoid catching any pneumonic form spread through breathing and sneezing.
  8. Bathe in hot water as frequently as you can.
  9. Keep a fire burning in your villa to ward off the bacillus, and stay as close to it as you can stand, even in summer.
  1. Have your armies burn and raze to the ground any nearby houses where plague victims have resided.
  2. Stay where you are until six months after the most recent nearby outbreak.
  3. Move to Bohemia before 1347 and don't leave until after 1353

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