Tag: Plague

Plague Movie

I recently had the chance to talk to the sixth-graders at Friends’ Central Schoolabout the Black Death. I really enjoyed translating scholarship on the plague into terms that middle-school students would both understand and enjoy. Some of it is easy—Gabriele de’ Mussis’s account of plague-infested corpses catapulted[1] into Kaffa, for instance:

The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.

Boccaccio’s discussion of the pigs that died of the plague in Florence was also popular:

This pestilence was so powerful that it spread from the ill to the healthy like fire among dry or oily materials. It was so bad that it could be communicated not only through speaking or associating with the sick, but even by touching their clothing or anything else they had touched. What I must say here is so strange that if I and others had not seen it with our own eyes I would hesitate to believe it, let alone write about it, even if I had heard it from trustworthy people. The pestilence spread so efficiently that, not only did it pass from person to person, but if an animal touched the belongings of some sick or dead person it contracted the pestilence and died of it in a short time. I myself witnessed this with my own eyes, as I said earlier. One day when a poor man had died and his rags had been thrown out in the street, two pigs came along and, as pigs do, they pushed the rags about with their snouts and then seized them with their teeth. Both soon fell down dead on the rags, as if they had taken poison.

I hoped to convey to them how quickly the plague moved through Europe. To do so, I put together a short film illustrating the spread of the plague. In this film, from 1347 until the end, each month takes about 2 1/2 seconds. This worked to show the rapidity of the spread at the outset and the gradual slowing over the years.

Initially, I set each month to 1 second, but I found that I didn’t have time to fill in details. So I slowed it down to give me more time to fill in relevant or interesting details.


  1. If we accept that de’ Mussis‘s account is accurate: The Tartar armies probably did not use catapults, which are generally incapable of hurling heavy objects very far. It seems more likely that the Tartars used something like a trebuchets, which can send much heavier objects much further.  ↩

Remedies for the Plague, ca. 1569—updated

In the preface to his The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage, Jan van der Noot thanks the King and Lord Suffolk. In 1559 England did not have a king. A recipe at the end of his text for the medicine of King Henry prompted me to suggest that he was referring in his preface to King Henry VIII. The Lord Suffolk part was less clear. There is another passage in the text that seems both to reinforce the King Henry VIII connection and makes clear the Lord Suffolk reference. There van der Noot says:

All these premisses haue I my selfe experimented and founde true, in diuers regions and countrees, as in Rome, Italie, Lumbardye, Naples, Poyelles, Calabers, Almanye, Flaunders, and likewise in Englande this .xvij. yeares. I beynge sworne vnto the noble late Frenche Quenes grace my Ladie Mary, and my Lorde of Suffolke his grace.

This passage seems to suggest that he was writing in much earlier in the century. He seems to be referring to Mary Tudor, Queen of France, who later married Charles Brandon, First Duke of Suffolk. He also suggests that he had been in England 17 years by the time he wrote this text.

Yesterday’s post on van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage also included an EPUB3 version of the text. In the hopes of making it more useful, I have added references to authors, texts, and theories van der Noot cites. Next up, notes on the various herbs and recipes in the text.

If you are interested, here is the latest file:
Van der Noot, The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage.
(I have not yet converted this into a Kindle version.) Let me know if you have suggestions for how to make this file more useful.

Remedies for the Plague, ca. 1569

In 1559 Jan van der Noot published a pamphlet offering his readers signs to predict an outbreak of plague, a list of causes, bedside techniques for comforting the afflicted, and ways of avoiding and curing the plague: The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage. (available from EEBO if you are lucky enough to be at an institution that pays for access).

Jan van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preservation of them that feare the Plage (London, 1569)
Jan van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preservation of them that feare the Plage (London, 1569)

Along with the standard bloodletting and regulating diet, van der Noot encourages his readers to be “mery, glad, & be emong mynstrels Harpes, Lutes, and other melodies, reade fonde and mery stories and songes.”. He also gives them recipes for six different medicines and instructions on when to take them:

¶ The vsyng of these foresaid sixe medecines.
The first day early in the morning shal you take of the Syrop, & after sleape vpon it one houre or twayne.
The second day shall you take a dragma of the Triacle.
The thirde day shall you take a sponeful of Corianders confite.
The fourth day, shall you take the decoction agaynst wormes.
The fift day shall you take a dragma of the Pylles.
The syxt day shall you rest.
The seuenth day shall you take any of these.
And it is very good, for to take ones in a weeke one dragma of these Pilles.
When soeuer you doo take any of these Pilles, that day you shall take none other medecine.

Van der Noot concludes his text with an interesting remedy he attributes to King Henry:

A medecine of Kyng Henry for the Plage or Pestilence.
TAke Marigolds, Sorrel, and Burnet, of euery of them a handful, Rew and Fetherfew of euery of them an other halfe handfull, and of Dragons a quantite of the crop or of the roote, and wash them in running water all cleane, and seeth all them softly in a pot, with a pottell of runninge water, till it come to a quarte of licker, and then set it backe till it be colde, and then strayne it in a fayre linnen cloth, and then drinke it, if you cannot drinke it for bitternesse, put therto Suger Candy. And if this drinke be taken before the markes of God be vpon them, he shalbe whole by the grace of God.

Some quick looking around did not reveal any other remedies attributed to King Henry. Van der Noot does not make it clear which King Henry is the source of this remedy. By the time this pamphlet was published, Queen Eizabeth I was on the throne. In his preface, Van der Noot thanks “the King his highness” and “my Lord Suffolk” for their support. Perhaps van der Noot had come to London during Henry VIII’s reign and simply stayed around.

The van der Noot who wrote this pamphlet is not, apparently, the Dutch poet by the same name who also spent time in London. The author of The Couernance seems to have run afoul of the College of Physicians a couple times for practicing medicine without a license. He was fined the first time and died before a sentence was passed the second time.1

For various reasons, van der Noot’s The Gouernance seemed like a nice chance to see how hard it would be to create an EPUB file. So I put together an EPUB3 file (which should be compatible with any reading system that supports either EPUB2 or EPUB3—let me know if you have problems). I then converted it to a Kindle file (for some reason, some of the styling broke in the conversion, but not so badly that I can be bothered to fix it right now):

Looking forward, I think it would be interesting to add a glossary and perhaps reading notes to this EPUB file (until Kindle begins to support more of the EPUB standard, I can’t be bothered to work too hard on the that version). What would make this file more useful to you?

FOOTNOTES:
1See Bas Jongenelen and Ben Parsons, “Jan van der Noot: A Mistaken Attribution in the Short-Title Catalogue,” Notes & Queries (2006): 247 — PDF available here.

A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?

The Crossrail project in London is attracting attention lately for having unearthed numerous graves. Today reports claim the project has run into the tip of a plague cemetery. The Guardian states unambiguously:

Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.

Sky News was more cautious:

Archaeologists say 12 skeletons found beneath a building site in London could provide evidence of a Black Death burial ground.

Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.
Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.

Experts claim that the evidence suggests this was a 14th-century “emergency burial ground,” but other tests—e.g., DNA and carbon dating—are needed to confirm or disconfirm that these 12 skeletons were victims of the Black Death. Whether or not it was a plague cemetery may remain an open question along with how many bodies were buried there. What we have right now is 12 (CNN reports 13) skeletons. There may be another 49,988, as Nasser Saidi recklessly claims (he is not alone in making that claim), but we will probably never know—according to The Guardian, the Crossrail project does not intend to excavate beyond the shaft where the remains were found.

As interesting as the articles are the comments from readers. Many readers share an unalloyed faith in a science that has cured the plague. Some combine that optimism with a historically problematic condemnation of the church. One comment:

Science has now come up with a cure for this. These poor people relied on prayer to save them as science was being held back by the church. Next time you see a story on Sky where some celebrity is thanking god for saving them as they leave a hospital remember this photo. Science is ready to sure cancer and will one say be able to grow you a brand new heart.

Or another:

At the time — due to ignorance, and belief in mumbo-jumbo — victims of the plague were considered to be objects of God’s Wrath (for sin, or whatever).
Today, we know better.

Equally common is the apparently real fear that uncovering these skeletons risks unleashing a plauge on London. Put most simply: “Is there any chance of the bacteria being able to regenerate now that bodies have been exhumed?”

It’s worth reading the comments to get a sense of contemporary fears, beliefs, and bugbears.

Controlling Panic in Renaissance Europe

The recent essay in The New York Times, “A Brief History of Panic,” highlights the ways that epidemics have caused widespread panic as well as the ways authorities have tried to control that panic. Such efforts are by authorities are by no means new but extend at least back to the fourteenth century.

Town councils and local physicians have long tried to quell the panic that comes with any epidemic. During outbreaks of plague, town councils tried to compel physicians to treat residents. As can be expected, this met with limited success. So, instead, they encouraged physicians to write short pamphlets with instructions and guidelines for residents on the best ways to avoid contracting the pestilence or curing it if already infected.1 The famous fourteenth-century physician Gentile da Foligno’s Consilium contra pestilentiam became something of a model for these texts, which continued well into the sixteenth century.2

Johannes Engel’s Tractat von der Pestilentz Joanni Engel (Augsburg, 1518) is typical of these texts. Written in the vernacular, it opened with a short discussion of the causes of the recent pestilence, usually a combination of remote, astrological causes and more local corrupt air. Engel identified a series of malefic planetary conjunctions and the always detrimental “30 revolutions of Saturn” as the astrological causes that had corrupted the air with poisonous vapors and dampness. But lest his reader despair, Engel explained how to act and what to eat and drink to avoid contracting the pestilence. He also offered some guidelines for recognizing who had been infected and what to do to treat them.

Johannes Engel’s Tractat von der Pestilentz Joanni Engel (Augsburg, 1518).
Johannes Engel’s Tractat von der Pestilentz Joanni Engel (Augsburg, 1518).

Pestilences took many forms. We often think most readily of the Black Death. But for people at the end of the fifteenth century, the new and frightening epidemic was the French Disease.3 Just as physicians in the fourteenth century had tried to explain the advent of the plague, in the 1490s and early 1500s physicians argued vehemently about the origins, symptoms, and cause of the French Disease. One of the more heated debates occurred between the German physicians Martin Pollich and Simon Pistoris. Their debate began as an academic disputation but soon spilled over the walls of the university and into the popular pamphlet literature.4 Simon Pistoris’s Ein kurtz schon und gar trostlich regiment wider die schweren und erschrecklichen kranckeyt der pestilenz (Leipzig, 1517) offers a range of generic advice on how to avoid a pestilence. The simplest advice was the best: flee, flee far and fast. For those who couldn’t flee, he offered a range of advice about the source of the pestilence, what and how much to eat and drink, when to sleep, when to bathe, when to purge, and a host of other activities that would help the reader stay healthy during an outbreak.

Simon Pistoris’s Ein kurtz schon und gar trostlich regiment wider die schweren und erschrecklichen kranckeyt der pestilenz (Leipzig, 1517).
Simon Pistoris’s Ein kurtz schon und gar trostlich regiment wider die schweren und erschrecklichen kranckeyt der pestilenz (Leipzig, 1517).

In addition to advice about what to do and what to avoid, these pamphlets often included recipes and prescriptions. Johannes Stocker’s Ain kurtz Regiment für die Pestilenz ([Augsburg], [1520]) offered readers a number of prophylactic recipes. In some cases, readers were instructed to roast the mixture over hot coals in the morning and at night, in order to cleanse the air. Another recipe produced a “Pestilenz pillule” that included, among other ingredients, precious stones. The reader should take early in the morning or one hour before dinner.

Johannes Stocker’s Ain kurtz Regiment für die Pestilenz ([Augsburg], [1520]).
Johannes Stocker’s Ain kurtz Regiment für die Pestilenz ([Augsburg], [1520]).

For readers unfortunate enough to have already been infected by the “poisonous substance” Stocker offers a recipe for a patch or bandaid of some sort (a “pflaster”) that, he claimed, was effective in drawing out the poisonous substance.

In 1521 Georg Tannstetter, an important member of the medical faculty at the University of Vienna and physician to Archduke Ferdinand, wrote a short text for the citizens of Vienna during an outbreak of the plague: Regiment für den lauff der Pestilentz (Vienna, 1521). Like other pamphlets, Tannstetter’s was intended to calm the populace by giving them both a familiarity with the causes of the epidemic and various measures to avoid it. Gesturing to the strong tradition of materia medica in Vienna, Tannstetter did not offer recipes but encouraged his readers to buy prescriptions from the local apothecaries.

Well into the sixteenth century such pamphlets continued to appear with the latest epidemic in cities across Europe. Along with the newly composed pamphlets, printers often simply recycled older pamphlets, apparently responding to healthy market for such consilia. For centuries people have looked to their authorities for reassurance and comfort in when confronted by different epidemics.

NOTES—
1 It is important to remember that not everybody who suffered from the pestilence was suffering from what we label bubonic plague. Reported symptoms and diagnostic categories do not map directly onto our categories. So while some people suffering from the plague died, as we would expect, some people were, reportedly, cured and survived.

2 On Foligno’s and other early consilia, see J. Arrizabalaga, “Facing the Black Death,” in Practical Medicine from Salerno to the Black Death (CUP, 1994), 237–288.

3 We often equate the French Disease with syphilis. For a critique of this equation, see J. Arrizabalag, J. Henderson, and R. French, The Great Pox (Yale, 1997), 1–19.

4 On Pistoris and his debate with Pollich, see R. French and J. Arrizabalaga, “Coping with the French Disease,” in Medicine from the Black Death to the French Disease (Ashgate, 1998), 248–287, esp. 263–269.