The Black Death, also known as the Plague or Great Mortality has been one of the greatest and most devastating pandemics that the man has ever experienced. When the disease spread in Europe between the 1347 and the 1353, it killed approximately 20 millions of people, a third of the total population. The cause of the pestilence was discovered only in 1894 by Alexandre Yersin, who discovered the pathogen responsible for the disease named in his honour Yersinia pestis.

The terrible pandemic originated in Asia,most specifically in Mongolia. It spread in Europe thanks to the tight commercial connections between Asia, Orient and Europe coming through the Silk Road to the main harbours.

from Constantinople and Alexandria to Messina, Genoa, Marseille and Venice

The people who contracted the disease generally were dying in a very short time. Their last days were terrible, characterised by symptoms such as high fever, vomit, and lungs bleeding, apart from painful bubos (dark livid stains) on armpits, groin and neck.

The medicine of that time was not a science able to face such an epidemic, so the methods that the doctors utilised  were arguable and controversial. The population, desperate, accepted to undergo any type of cure, even when they appeared foolish. Some of those remedies seemed way worse than the disease itself.


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The Theriaca was one of the lightest remedies compared to the gross ones. Molasses, a syrup derived from sugar, was part of the composition of an ancient medicine, the Theriaca (from the Greek Thériakè – antidote), made out of plenty of ingredients and utilised to cure loads of conditions. The medicine was considered as a possible cure for the Plague too but the condition to treat it was to be at least 10 years old: that was because the mixture had by that point developed yeasts and other substances that may have made it useful for many other pathologies. Sadly though none of its remedies had any valid effect on the Plague.

Bloodletting through leeches

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The bloodletting, common practice for treating a wide varieties of diseases, dates back to the 800 BC. The leeches revealed themselves as a handy ally and are still used nowadays to treat certain conditions. The bloodletting through leeches is a technique relatively painless, but back to the Black Death era not many people could afford it. For this reason many people would resort to a cheaper yet more risky operation:

cutting their veins and draining their blood in a bowl

The pain was not the main problem but the lacking hygienic conditions of the time were amplifying the risks of infection.

Emerald powder

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The emerald powder was a cure destined only to Kings. The method was simple: crumbling the precious stone with a mortar, mixing it with water and drinking it as a potion. Sometimes the valuable powder was mixed with the food or just simply swallowed by itself. The emerald is a very requested stone but perhaps eating it wouldn’t feel any different than having splinters of glass.

Application of a cream made out of human faeces

One amongst the most gross methods was certainly the one that follows. They would open up the swollen infected lymph nodes on the armpits or groin in order for the disease to “leave” the body and then they applied straight onto the wound a mixture of resin, roots of flowers and human faeces. The treated areas were then wrapped up with bandages. The whole process was probably a great starting point for new contaminations.

Urine baths

Urine was another substance considered as a panacea for a bit of everything, even during the Middle Ages. People who contracted the infection believed that bathing in the urine a couple of times every day would have alleviated the terrible symptoms of the disease.

they were also suggesting to drink a glass or two of it

During the years of the Black Death, uninfected urine was collected and shared or sold to the ill people.

Rub the body of the victim against a chicken

It may sound like a joke but it was an actual method employed after the 1500, hence in epidemics following the one of the Black Death in 1347-1353. The ritual was called “the Vicary method” by the English doctor who invented it, Thomas Vicary. In the first place they plucked the rear of a chicken, which then was tied to the lymph nodes of the infected person.

the entire procedure would require the animals to be alive

When the the animal got ill too they had to wash it and place it one more time on the patient, up until the animal or the plague victim would heal. Strangely, this technique was widely spread so the chicken became vehicle of the disease. Vicary was a famous doctor who also served the court of the Tudor, and to this day there is a special lesson every year which celebrates him at the Royal College of Surgeons, in England.

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