Got the plague? 10 ways to cure it (or at least try)


With the Crossrail excavations of the Bedlam burial ground excavations in the news, we are reminded of the thousands of Londoners who died during the Great Plague of London (1665-1666). But did you know that the plague still exists, and that the most recent case of outbreak happened last summer in China?

The first occurrence of bubonic plague happened in 1348-1349, which was the first of many outbreaks. Many questions still remain as to the exact nature of the plague, which – if answered – could help to fight it now. For this reason, archaeologists are planning to extract DNA from the Bedlam skeletons to learn about the disease and how to fight it.

That’s all well and good for the unlucky few who might catch the plague now, but when the first plague victims got sick, they didn’t have archaeologists to help them find a cure. Looking back now, medieval attempts to cure the plague are both tragic and amusing. Here are ten tried and tested medieval methods that will definitely NOT cure bubonic plague.

1. Good smells

People believed that the disease was airborne and they could somehow ward it off if they carried sweet smelling perfumes or flowers with them. They couldn’t.

You might recognize an image of a plague doctor with his striking beaked mask – the beak was filled with scented Image - Quacksubstances like ambergris, mint or cloves – at the very least this helped mask the smell of the patients.

2. Bad smells

Well if good smells didn’t work then maybe bad smelling things would serve to ward off the plague? What sick person wouldn’t want to smear themselves with onions or hang around sewers?!

3. Avoiding Baths

Bathing was thought to weaken the heart so people were warned against cleanliness – somethImage - Lancinging which would have gone a long way to contain the disease. oops.

4. Lancing the Buboes

Both painful and ineffective, draining the pus from sufferers’ sores did more harm than good. First, it could infect the bloodstream and cause septicemia secondly, letting the pus out would make the spread of disease faster.

5. Bleeding

A common cure-all in medieval times, bleeding was used to balance fluids in the body and was thought to restore health. In the case of the plague it only served to cause infection, spread germs and, weaken an already deathly ill person – way to go!

6. Scourging Image - Scourging

Many believed that the plague was a punishment from god, this lead to sufferers flagellating themselves as a form of penance – yet another ‘cure’ that opened wounds and spread the disease!

7. Theriac

This concoction with ancient origins was a mixture of treacle, various herbs, leaves and even viper flesh and opium. It was left to ferment for several years to increase its potency. This would be used as a salve or, if patients could somehow stomach it, it would be eaten.

8. Drinking mercury and arsenicImage - Force feeding

Indeed, mercury and arsenic were thought to be able to cure sickness and it was recommended that these substances be consumed in various potions and remedies. At the very least the poor patients were put out of their misery sooner.

9. Freshly plucked chickens

That’s right, from what had to be a cruel joke, some people recommended that sufferers strap chickens (alive or dead) to their swollen buboes. This was supposed to draw out the poisons into the chicken … interesting theory.

10. Powdered unicorn hornImage -unicorn

People were so desperate for a cure they tried anything, unicorns horns were well known in myth to have magical healing properties so this magical remedy was an easy sell to a dying population.

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Anna van Nostrand

Written by Anna van Nostrand

One of DigVentures’ intrepid Community Archaeologists, Anna is all about spreading the good word of Archaeology. A big kid herself, her main focus is the getting young venturers involved.

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