Blood, Emeralds, Snakes & Poop: Bizarre European Medieval Plague Cures
Originating in China in the 1300s, plague arrived in Europe aboard a ship, bringing fearsome death in its wake. The Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, carrying away at least a third of its population, about 25 to 30 million people. The black buboes or black and swollen lymph nodes of plague victims gave the disease its name. Throughout the medieval period and well into the 17th century, localized outbreaks kept decimating populations in Europe.
Desperate medieval plague times called for desperate plague cures. The bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodent fleas. But this was not known until 1894. Thus, in medieval Europe plague outbreaks were attributed to a variety of causes, some sort of scientific, some religious, and some that were just weird! In equal measure, the strange plague cures and preventions were absurd and revolting. They are unlikely to have done the sufferers any good; the majority, in fact, are likely to have caused harm.
Vinegar potions became popular in Europe from a gang of thieves that swore by them, and vinegar is actually helpful! (Olybrius / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Thieves Used Vinegar Potions When Robbing Plague Homes
Vinegar potions acquired popularity in France as one gang of thieves who looted the houses of the dead never got sick because of their special potion. It consisted of a vinegar, garlic, and medicinal herbs.
Rubbing the body with vinegar alone was also supposed to grant protection against the plague. Coins were cleaned in vinegar before being exchanged. Given the disinfecting properties of vinegar, known from Greek times, with the added anti-microbial properties of herbs, spices and garlic, this would have to count as one of the saner responses to this terrifying illness.
The Raw Onion Plague Cure
Rubbing a cut raw onion on the body was another popular way to prevent or stop the plague. It was hoped that this would draw the infection out as well as counter the miasma. While medieval European societies and citizens may have been wrong in attributing the plague to noxious fumes or miasma, they were not entirely off the mark in thinking that breathing played some part in its spread. The pneumonic plague, as opposed to the bubonic plague spread by the bite of infected rat fleas, is spread by respiratory droplets.
Onions may not have provided a cure, but the treatment was innocuous enough. A floundering and frenzied world resorted to many far more bizarre and potentially harmful measures that would only have hastened the passage into the next world.
In medieval times and even before bloodletting was believed to get the bad out and this was also true of the plague and after the plague! (Anneke / Adobe Stock)
Plague: The Four Humors and Bloodletting
Based on the Greek physician Galen’s (lived 129-210 AD) theory of the four bodily “humors,” black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, and the need to maintain a balance between them for good health, bloodletting was a common medical procedure for all diseases. Although the Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna; 980-1037) had come up with germ theory as far back as 1025, it was discounted in favor of Galen’s concepts when it came to the plague.
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So, when the plague struck, physicians turned automatically to their favorite remedy. Special bloodletting knives called “fleams” were wielded liberally or else leeches were applied to drain the excess blood from a plague patient and restore their body to its humoral balance. Alas, the results weren’t uplifting or effective. The bloodletting served only to weaken a plague-stricken body further and perhaps spread more infection through unsterilized instruments.
London Plague Belief: Smoking a Pipe Would Help!
The belief that miasma or a highly unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapor caused or at least contributed to the plague gave rise to another preventive measure that was widely resorted to during the Great Plague of 1665-66 in London. To “clean” the air large bonfires were kept burning, on the order of authorities day and night. And within homes too citizens didn’t let their fires go out. And that’s not all!
To keep “clean” germ-free air going into their lungs, many Londoners took to smoking pipes and forced children to do so as well!
Plague doctors weren’t very good at medicine when it came to new things like the Black Death and so their crazy “cures” became popular with other “doctors.” For example, the Vicary Method was conceived of by a quack doctor in England who believed chickens breathed through their bums! (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
Vicary Method: Plague Bums and Feathers!
One of the most outlandish plague cures was the Vicary Method, so named after Thomas Vicary, the quack who devised it. It consisted of plucking the feathers off a live chicken’s bottom and tying it to the patient, rump touching the buboes!
The logic behind this weird cure was the medieval belief that chickens breathed through their bottoms and so their feathers would be able to draw the toxin out. If the patient died during the cure, so be it. If the chicken died first, another chicken simply replaced it. The additional bacteria released by the chicken would only have spread more infection to an already weakened body.
Human Excrement Smeared On Plague Buboes
By far the most loathsome of plague treatments called for the buboes to be cut open and treated with a poultice of human excrement (which could be the patient’s own, if they were in a state to be particular) mixed with other things. The results are not pleasant to imagine.
Some Believed Reptiles Could Remove Plague
Acting on the principle of like attracts like, snakes were chopped up and applied to the plague buboes in the hope that the evil sickness would be drawn out by the venomous beasts.
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Likewise, a dead, desiccated toad hung around a person’s neck, even after they had died, was also believed to be an effective way to draw toxic vapors out of a patient’s breast.
For the rich of Europe, it was protected countryside estates and ground emeralds or gold that served as the best ways to not get the plague or survive it. (Аружан Жамбулатова / CC BY-SA 3.0)
For the Plague Rich: Emeralds and Gold!
For the rich, apart from flight to their country estates, where they often spread the disease further from the big cities, there were many expensive cures to choose from. Crushed emeralds and potable gold were two of them.
Then there were “so-called” unicorn horns that were ground into a powder called alicorn and mixed with water for the gullible rich to drink. It is thought to actually have been made from narwhal or rhinoceros tusks.
Severe Beatings to Get The Plague Out!
Arising from the belief that the plague was a visitation from God for the sins committed by man, groups of flagellants would walk the streets stripped to the waist, whipping themselves as public penance. The whips were often many tailed and knotted with nails.
The pope eventually banned flagellations as being ineffective and upsetting to the public but by then the flagellants had done much to spread the plague everywhere they went. As did religious processions and mass petitions for God’s mercy.
Religious charms, amulets, prayer, and fasting may not have aided the spread of the disease but they proved equally useless in combating the plague.
In this miniature by Flemish painter Pierart dou Tielt (painted circa 1340-1360), Jews are being burnt alive as they were viewed a plague spreaders or poisoners! (Pierart dou Tielt / Public domain)
The Horrible Plague Abuses of Migrants, Jews, and Misfits
Jews, cripples, gypsies, and other marginalized communities were often blamed for the plague based on the accusation that they had poisoned public wells with the disease. They were either driven away or tortured and killed.
It was only saner voices like Pope Clement VI who pointed out that since many Jews had themselves contracted the plague, they couldn’t be held responsible for causing it.
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Meanwhile, raw sewage and rubbish continued to be disposed of in the open. And the bodies piled up in the streets before being carted off to mass graves. Conditions were perfect for rats to proliferate and multiply and for the plague to rage on until it burnt itself out, to visit again as soon as it found a fresh unexposed population. It was only in the late 17th century that repeated cycles of plague finally came to an end, perhaps as conditions became more hygienic. An effective cure in the form of antibiotics came much later. In 2021, about 5,000 poor people across the globe died from the plague!
Top image: The Black Death or the Bubonic plague killed millions and was completely impossible for "doctors" to understand let alone treat. But they invented all kinds of cures for plague from sensible ones to totally insane ideas! Source: illustrissima / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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