How to survive a medieval pandemic!

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The human race has been living with the occasional pandemic and killer virus since we evolved and stood on two feet. In recent months, we have endured the Coronavirus lockdown and extended quarantine in our own homes. So – how did our ancestors in the medieval period survive a pandemic?


That would be the advice from the Italian 14th century author Giovanni Boccaccion (1313 to 1375) who knew only too well about the infamous Black Death. He wrote a very entertaining and slightly scandalous story called The Decameron. In it, ten young men and women (three male, seven female) flee plague-ridden Florence for a deserted villa in the countryside. Well, you can imagine the readers wanted to know what happened next!

Over a ten day period, each of them tells ten stories to pass the time. That’s a total of 100 stories. The themes were quite critical of the church, state and authority. We can probably appreciate that. The plague made people question everything. And there’s a biting sarcasm in The Decameron about priests and friars and other hypocrites.

TO SURVIVE A MEDIEVAL PANDEMIC: Resort to quack cures!

You’ve got a bad case of the bubonic plague and it’s not looking good for you. So why not rub some onions into the affected areas. Or a chopped up snake? Yes, folks, these were indeed some recommended “cures” for plague. If you couldn’t get your hands on a snake – then a pigeon would do.

If that all seemed a bit too much, just guzzle down some vinegar. Or how about mercury? And don’t believe those rumours about it being poisonous or driving you mad. It’s splendid stuff! After all, in our time an American president has suggested that bleach could clean out a virus. So let’s not mock our medieval ancestors too much.


You see, your body – according to the ancient Greek “father of medicine” Hippocrates – is made up of four substances: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. They needed to be in perfect balance for you to be in good health. So, if you were ill – some rebalancing was required.

You could normally tell if somebody’s humours were unbalanced because the humours had external characteristics. So, those tending to have more black bile were melancholic. Angry people were full of yellow bile. Lots of blood made you sanguine and happy. Philosophical people were phlegmatic. And if you had a runny nose, then that was a good indicator you had too much phlegm. Nose bleed = too much blood. And so on.

To rebalance the humours might require some blood letting. Or letting a leech feed on you for a while. Phlegm could obviously be solved by blowing your nose very hard repeatedly. You might need a purgative to release the bile. Etc.

Hippocrates had already been dead over 1500 years when the Black Death came round but his theories were as popular as ever. It took to the end of the medieval era for some bright sparks to say – hey, isn’t this total rubbish?

TO SURVIVE A MEDIEVAL PANDEMIC: Consider whipping yourself

You couldn’t make it up. Many people believed that a pandemic was basically a message from God to say – I’m not really very happy with you lot. And so the level of praying and general worshipping had to be upped dramatically. Plus you could take it a whole new level by beating yourself in public. This is what the flagellants did. I actually have an 18th century print of a procession of flagellants – and it’s a long procession!

TO SURVIVE A MEDIEVAL PANDEMIC: Try and describe what you’re seeing

Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies”. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.

Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”.  Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”

It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.

The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.

Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.

DISCOVER MORE: Huge plague pit discovered in London

TO SURVIVE A MEDIEVAL PANDEMIC: Collect useful facts about the Black Death

Here are some bizarre facts about the Black Death. They wouldn’t help you survive. They’re just interesting:

  • The Black Death first arrived in England at Melcombe Regis in the county of Dorset in June 1348
  • Remote mountainous areas were hit just as badly as cities. Inexplicably, the plague sometimes passed by certain villages without killing anybody
  • Dubrovnik in modern Croatia was the first place to quarantine people
  • There are still bitter arguments about how the Black Death originated and was carried so don’t believe at face value claims it had nothing to do with rats and fleas – these really are theories in the conventional sense

TO SURVIVE A MEDIEVAL PANDEMIC: Make a movie about it!

Some movies about medieval plagues have been worse to experience than the plagues themselves. My mind immediately turns to the woeful ‘Black Death‘. I began to consider fleeing the cinema or trying a quack cure as I watched it. I mean – how can you make a dreadful movie about such a compelling subject?

FIND OUT MORE: Best medieval movies of all time!

Here is the trailer – it’s not very infectious 🙂

4 thoughts on “How to survive a medieval pandemic!

  1. Good time to start talking about the plague. You could use it as a metaphor for all that is wrong with the continent at the moment, such as the EU disaster, and no, I’m not trying to make a political point here. Things really are grim and no one knows what is going to happen next.

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