A quick primer for those of you too lazy to read my research section. I am currently studying new ways to identify episodes of mass mortality that occurred in the past. In particular at the moment, I am trying to locate the ‘lost’ victims of the Black Death in England. [The Black Death, aka, the plague, aka Yersinia pestis.] While a lot of my research is heavy on the methodology of demography, I do get to spend quite a lot of my time reading about the disease in a medieval context.
While I am mostly interested in how people in the medieval period were coping with the numerous human remains generated by the outbreaks of the plague, it is nearly impossible to not get sidetracked some of the time. It’s just so ridiculous and interesting. Ridiculously interesting?
Now, I started to write this particular post before it was confirmed that there had been an outbreak of bubonic plague in Madagascar (there have been reports of pneumonic plague now too). Nowadays, the most effective antibiotic and drug of choice for treatment of plague is Streptomycin. Of course, there are signs of some strains that are resistant to the standard-use antibiotics, but that is another post entirely.
But you see, the thing is in the medieval period, of course antibiotics hadn’t been discovered yet (that doesn’t happen until 1939 folks). As a result of the medieval ‘understanding’ of anatomy, disease, and medicine they ended up with some pretty phenomenal ‘treatments’ and ‘cures’ for the plague (in addition to many of the other horrific illnesses they were faced with on a regular basis).
This subject is vast, but today I want to focus on a special category of treatments for the plague. An area of treatment I’d like to call… ‘Things on Buboes’.
One of the symptoms most commonly associated with the plague are the characteristic swellings or buboes (singular: bubo) that occur as the lymph nodes swell in response to the infection. This is what gives us the name ‘bubonic’ plague (opposes to pneuomonic or septaecemia). It comes from the Greek word (surprise, surprise) βουβών, meaning “groin”, because the swellings often occurred in the groin.
These buboes could actually appear in any area of the lymphatic system (the armpit is another commonly cited location). It is thought the location of the prominent swellings is down to where the infection entered the body (e.g. where the little %$£*&^ disease-spreading insect vectors bit you). Now, not everyone with the plague – even the bubonic plague – would have these swellings, but they do make for a great fear-inducing image, so you can see why they’ve become one of the most iconic images of the disease.
Many medieval medical practitioners (doctors, clergy, quacks, and more) had the idea that these swellings were key to the illness and therefore, the illness could be removed from the body through these swellings. Of course, often they would resort to lancing, draining, or removing the swellings, but let’s not go into that here (eww).
Instead, let’s discuss another method: the placement of particular objects or materials on the buboes, in order to draw out or absorb the illness through the skin. Because obviously.
The first thing you may think of is a sort of plaster or a poultice – and indeed these were used. Who doesn’t love a poultice? Different materials were used to press all sorts of delightful things to the buboes, from fragrant oils to pungent dung.
But I was more distracted by the… odder… things that were pressed or placed upon the buboes.
One of the most frequently mentioned is toads. Often dried. Dried toads, ladies and gentlemen.
The instructions were that toads should be taken which have been dried thoroughly in the air or the sun and they should be laid on the bubo. Then the toad will swell and draw the poison of the plague through the skin itself and when it is full it should be thrown away and a new one applied. Some people used live toads. I wonder how they convinced them to stay on the buboes?
But if toads were not to be procured, you could turn to other animals. In the same manner you could use lizards (they’re basically the same thing, right). Spiders were also reported to be good at drawing poisons out. Snakes too. Well, maybe not a whole snake… but their tongues. Yeah. That’ll do. Especially the tongues from venomous snakes!
And if you didn’t have toads (live or dried), lizards, spiders, or snakes (or just their tongues), it was reported that a cockerel could be taken, its posterior plucked, and thus bare and alive it could be applied to the bubo. Then the cockerel would then die, because it had collected all the poison in itself.
Oh and you’re all out of cockerels… don’t worry because living sparrows are said to have the same effect. Score!
On the notion of live animals, sometimes they just wouldn’t do. In what has to be one of the most awful treatments of the day, if during the plague delirium and inflammation of the brain ensued, it was said that a young pigeon should be taken and torn asunder and, still warm, applied to the head.
That’s horrible. But it gets worse… IN THE SAME MANNER A PUPPY OF ONE MONTH OLD MAY BE USED. (Trust me, you didn’t want to be a puppy in the medieval period. They used them for all sorts of things and frequently not nice things like a friendly pat on the head or a game of fetch. Puppy soup anyone?)
A lot of these ‘treatments’ stem from an idea that was persistent at the time, which basically said in order to cure evil you needed evil*; two wrongs do make a right.
But speaking of puppy soup. If you weren’t interested in going down the animal route. Why not try some food?
Figs on buboes. Onions on buboes. Sometimes raw. Sometimes cooked! Frequently an entire meal made and placed on the damn things. It was suggested that the swellings should be softened with figs and/or onions mixed with yeast and butter. Mmm… Don’t forget the honey!
Or, if you haven’t got the energy to cook, how about some bread? It’s nice and squishy and absorbent, so it’ll do a great job at soaking up the illness through the skin. Bread on buboes! But if that doesn’t work and the person still seems to be dying, why not just put the bread over their mouth to soak up all the horrible-ness they are obviously expelling.
Going back to the whole evil cures evil thing. Even though the food isn’t evil to begin with, this concept meant there were some mixed opinions on what you should do with all of these things that had formerly been on buboes (because they’d since soaked up the evil). A lot of people said, “Eat them!” The idea being that if you get rid of evil with evil, then by eating the evil-soaked foods you would be given protection from the evil. But there are stories of people eating the onions from bedside tables of the dead and then dying themselves. So… up to you.
There was an alternative to putting animals (alive or dead), food (cooked or raw) and other whatnots (sweet or foul smelling) on buboes though – placing or pressing expensive, beautiful, delightful things up against them instead. The more extravagant the better: diamonds, almandine, sapphires, topas, jasper. Bejewelled buboes anyone? Oh. But if you want them to work even better, then why not carve a scorpion into it. Because the whole evil thing, remember?
I think I’ll stick with antibiotics, thanks.
The illustration I’ve used to crudely demonstrate some of these treatments is one from the Toggenburg Bible (1411). It is most often stated to be a depiction of the plague – but it has also been suggested that it illustrates smallpox instead. Either way, you get the idea.
*Toads were pretty much evil incarnate and used to cure, treat, and prevent a lot of bad things (or sometimes not even toads, but things people thought came from toads – like toadstones).