Isolation, Medieval Style

As we begin to emerge from the isolation that has been imposed in response to Covid-19, it might be timely to reflect on the fact that the world has faced immense social disruption due to pestilence many times in its history. And whilst now we have scientific knowledge and medical treatments that can help us minimise the terrible effects of such a contagion, the planet’s earlier populations were left largely to battle on in the darkness of ignorance. There are, however, similarities in the broad features of pandemics over the centuries. Take, for example, the plague (that we know as the ‘Black Death’) which swept across the western world in the mid-fourteenth century.

The ‘Black Death’ is believed to have started in China in 1347 and to have swept rapidly west to engulf Europe (and Britain) in 1348-1349, and wiping out between 30% and 50% of the population in its wake. The great medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was a resident of Florence when that city was overtaken by plague and he wrote of the experience in his classic work, ‘The Decameron’. First, in a description that resonates with our own efforts to curtail the spread of Covid-19 Boccaccio explains that “despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health … the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent.”

He goes on to describe the contagious nature of the disease, observing that “… it was not merely propagated from man to man but … it was frequently observed that things which had belonged to one sick or dead of the disease, if touched by some other living creature, not of the human species …. [suffered] almost instantaneous death.” Florence was so overwhelmed by the number of deaths, Boccaccio says, that the normal reverent rituals associated with death and the traditional burial customs were discarded completely and, sadly, bodies piled up in the streets as there was few (or none) to remove them. And whilst many Florentine residents took the view that they might as well “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” others choose isolation, removing themselves from the city if they were able to do so. This, of course, was Boccaccio’s choice and his great work “The Decameron” is actually the story of ten Florentines who fled the town and decided to share their own sad, funny and bawdy stories as a way of passing the time in their group seclusion.

Boccaccio also shares some grim details of the symptoms of the Plague but I’ll leave those for you to follow-up if you’re so inclined. Today, however, we know that the medieval plague presented in two interrelated forms:

  1. Bubonic – swellings (buboes) beginning on neck, armpits, groin. Infected fleas attached to rats spread this form. Death usually within a week
  2. Pneumonic – contracted by breathing exhaled air of someone with primary plague. Death within 1-2 days

Boccaccio offers no ideas on the treatment of the contagion, (beyond describing how many people walked about “carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses” but he regarded this more as a way of disguising the “stench of the dead and dying” rather than as any type of infection preventative. Other writers of the time, however, offered some (very dubious) suggestions on treating the plague, and here are a few examples:

  • The swellings associated with the Black Death should be cut open to allow the disease to leave the body. A mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement should be applied to the places where the body has been cut open.
  • Roast the shells of newly laid eggs. Ground the roasted shells into a powder. Chop up the leaves and petals of marigold flowers. Put the egg shells and marigolds into a pot of good ale. Add treacle and warm over a fire. The patient should drink this every morning and night.
  • Place a hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence from the body. To aid recovery, the patient should drink a glass of his own urine twice a day.

                                           All I can say is: DO NOT TRY THESE AT HOME