By Emma Gosselin and Nicole Fondots
"Here in the city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign..." (5.2.7).
Medieval doctors held a vital position in society, as they led people through the tough times of the Plague. Doctors recommended certain practices to help keep the disease from infecting them. Recommended was avoiding hot baths, sexual intercourse, physical exertion, daytime slumber, and excessive consumption of desserts. Instead they promoted a diet of bread, nuts, eggs, leaks, peppers and onions to keep them healthy. Also distributed by physicians were anti-plague pills, pills containing substances such as saffron, snake meat and toxins. Other things they advised were maintaining a clear, positive mind (through praying), to purge all ideas of the Plague as it approached. Additionally, citizens were urged to partake in some practices to keep the sickness away. For example many burned pleasant-smelling woods to cleanse the air. Flowers, rosewater and vinegar were often used by housewives to purify the household. Birds were used to stir up the air, while milk and bread were used to trap germs and bacteria. Some people however, believed in opposite practices. For this reason, some bathed in urine, menstrual blood while other breathed in the air of fecal matter in an act to counteract the foul. Pictured is a doctor/scientist who is preforming an autopsy on a patient to learn more about diseases, such as the Plague. The man is also recording information in a book to keep record of disease patterns. (Jackie Rosenhek).
The Black Death was first spread to Europe through trading ships arriving in the ports of England. In October 1347, after traveling through the Black Sea, 12 Genoese ships used for trading stopped at the port of Messina. These "death ships" carried the plague that traveled across Europe, eventually reaching Great Britain. Sailors on the ship were infected by this deadly disease, most were extremely ill, while many were already dead. Many of the alive sailors had symptoms such as, being delirious and unable to keep food down. All were marked with distinctive black boils, which the Plague was named for. These gruesome boils oozed blood and puss. The people of the town immediately sent he ships out, in and effort to keep the disease from spreading, however it was too late, as the Plague had already caught on. Throughout the next five years, the Black Plague would kill more than 20 million people. (The History Chanel).
The victims of the plague encountered multiple symptoms leading to their death. One deadly effect of the Black Plague was the growth of boils on the skin of the victims. After being infected, boils would eventually form on the skin. The skin would swell and could grow to the size of an egg or an apple. Eventually, this resulted in black boils oozing blood and pus. Although most of the doctors' efforts failed due to lack of knowledge, they still worked to rid the patients of the boils. Doctors took measures such as, bleeding the patients to balance the sores, or popping the buboes. Others applied toads or poultices to suck up the evil poison. (Dunn). Pictured, is an illustration from the Toggenburg Bible of two patients being treated for their boils.
The Black Plague had been highly contagious and was first spread by rats on trading ships. Despite popular belief, the illness was not always spread from person to person. The rats were actually the real carriers of the disease. Infested in these rodents were Xenopsylla cheopsis, infectious fleas. Through a contagion cycle, fleas became infected by the bacterium and transmitted it to the rats and later, the people. For example, infected rats would bite sailors, and the sailors would sicken from the disease and ultimately succumb to the illness. These rats would spread the plague to farm animals on the countryside, to sailors out at sea, and to city dwellers. (The Black Death, National Geographic).
Path of the Plague
This map illustrates the roots of the Black Death that paved a destructive path for the future. Represented through the map are the years 1347-1352. Although not during the Elizabethan era, the Plague brought about then did make it easier for it to come back later during the 16'th and 17'th centuries.
During the Elizabethan Era, doctors worked to diagnose and treat Bubonic Plague patients. Because they were paid by the state, the doctors were able to treat both the rich and the poor. However, because the Black Death was so deadly, doctors often didn't try to cure the victims; instead they kept a record of how many people were getting the disease and when. In the end this was okay because the plague doctors weren't well trained in the first place. Additional duties held by doctors were performing autopsies, and reporting conditions. Even though the doctors were highly valued for their work, many of them were corrupt, only working for money. It wasn't uncommon for these doctors to give false prognoses, so that the family would continue to pay them, despite an almost certain death. The doctors during the 17’th century wore very unique outfits created by Charles De l’Orme, a medical doctor during the 1600's. The costume consisted of waxed pants, gloves, boots and hats. On the head they wore a mask that was made of a leather hood that protected them from any noxious fumes. Often times these hats were filled with aromatics. (Rosenhek). Pictured is a diagram of a typical plague doctor's outfit.
Plague Doctor Article
Pictured is an article written by the Yale Medical Library. The article describes the common attire of a doctor, and their expected duties as a physician during the Plague. Featured in the article is a popular poem from the 1600's. The poem also discusses what the doctors wore and how that helped them stay safe. One line says, "The staff in hand must serve to show, their noble trade where'er they go". What this means to say is that their customs and tools allowed all others to be able to identify them as the brave people risking their lives to help the common good of people by trying to treat the disease.