13 bizarre and outlandish cures for the medieval black death – including powdered unicorn horn and frogs’ legs

During the time of the medieval Black Death, the city of London published weekly statistics of people who’d died that week and from what cause. As you’d expect, “plague” was generally the number one cause between 1665 and 1666, however, a less noted but infinitely more interesting cause listed during this time was “Frighted”. This was used to describe those who’d supposedly died from the sheer fright or shock of being told they’d been diagnosed with the plague. Other interesting or quirky causes of death noted in these “Bills of Mortality” include: people dying of “grief”, “sore legges”, a surprising number from “Teeth”, and, of course, the age old cause of death- “griping in the guts”.

The Black Death is known to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population. Recent unearthed evidence shows that this estimate is too low; actually, the plague inflicted death “on an eye-watering scale”.

Here are 13 common but strange cures that people used to try to escape almost certain death.

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13.

Smoking

In 1665, the College of Physicians recommended brimstone ‘burnt plentiful’ as a cure for the bad air that caused the plague.

Besides bonfires being kept burning throughout the city at all times by order of the authorities and homes also having their fires going day and night, regardless of the temperature, many took to smoking tobacco as a way of keeping the air going into their lungs free of disease.

This led to a bizarre situation in which people of all ages, including children, were forced to smoke (or start smoking if they hadn’t previously).

A.J. Bell wrote decades after the Black Death :

“For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes. Thomas Hearnes remembers one Tom Rogers telling him that when he was a scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged, all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. It was long afterwards a tradition that none who kept a tobacconist shop in London had the plague.”

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12.

Vinegar

Good for cleaning windows, stain removal – and the Black Death.

When money was used in day-to-day transactions in shops or markets, it was placed in a bowl of vinegar rather than being handed over to the recipient. At markets, meat was not handed over by hand rather but by a joint being attached to a hook.

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11.

Lucky Charms

The wearing of lucky charms was also common – and recommended by doctors. Ambroise Pare, a physician, introduced new methods for treating gunshot wounds – but he still believed that a lucky charm would keep away the plague. Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck.

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10.

Unicorn Horns and Frog Legs

Charlatans often set themselves up as doctors. They sold plague ‘cures’ at high prices. Chaucer commented that the Doctor of Physic made much ‘gold’ out of the pestilence. There were many who were willing to try these quack cures as few had any other alternative.

‘Plague water’ was a popular cure as was powered unicorn horn and frogs legs. Strapping live chickens around plague buboes or drinking potions laced with mercury, arsenic or ground horn from the mythical unicorn drew out the poison allowing the patient to recover – or so people were told.

Making a victim of the plague sweat and then applying to buboes a recently killed pigeon was a popular ‘cure’.

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9.

Prayer, prayer – and more prayer

There were actually set prayers and Bible extracts designated for use in time of plague. A special Mass of St Sebastian was used, for example – Sebastian being one of the patron saints of plague, the arrow wounds of his martyrdom being a trope for the buboes of the plague which broke out on victims’ bodies.

Spiritual health remained paramount and although people may have grown less fatalistic in the face of disease they still regarded prayer and penance as their first line of defence.

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8.

Flowers and Herbs

They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odours; for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.

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7.

Whip Yourself

Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls. Some upper-class men joined processions of flagellants that traveled from town to town and engaged in public displays of penance and punishment: They would beat themselves and one another with heavy leather straps studded with sharp pieces of metal while the townspeople looked on.

For 33 1/2 days, the flagellants repeated this ritual three times a day. Then they would move on to the next town and begin the process over again. Though the flagellant movement did provide some comfort to people who felt powerless in the face of inexplicable tragedy, it soon began to worry the Pope, whose authority the flagellants had begun to usurp. In the face of this papal resistance, the movement disintegrated.

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6.

See A doctor

No one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another–according to one doctor, for example, “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick”–and no one knew how to prevent or treat it.

Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-lancing (practices that were dangerous as well as unsanitary) and superstitious practices such as burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar.

Most plague doctors did a lot more counting than curing, keeping track of the number of casualties and recorded the deaths in log books.

Plague doctors were sometimes requested to take part in autopsies and were often called upon to testify and witness wills and other important documents for the dead and dying. Not surprisingly, many a dishonest doc took advantage of bereaved families, holding out false hope for cures and charging extra fees (even though they were supposed to be paid by the government and not their patients).

Whatever their intentions, whatever their failings, plague doctors were thought of as brave and highly valued; some were even kidnapped and held for ransom.

Doctors often wore a dark leather hood and mask. Eyeholes were cut into the leather and fitted with glass domes. As if this wasn’t scary enough, a grotesque curved beak protruded designed to hold the fragrant compounds believed to keep “plague air” at bay.

A wooden stick completed the look, which the plague doctor used to lift the clothing and bed sheets of infected patients to get a better look without actually making skin-to-skin contact.

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5.

Avoid the Sick

In a panic, healthy people did all they could to avoid the sick. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites. Shopkeepers closed stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people.

In fact, so many sheep died that one of the consequences of the Black Death was a European wool shortage. And many people, desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick and dying loved ones. “Thus doing,” Boccaccio wrote, “each thought to secure immunity for himself.”

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4.

Kill Troublemakers

Many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. The only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness.

Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers–so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349. (Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities.)

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3.

Avoid Gerbils

Some scientists believe that while the Black Death was indeed bubonic plague borne by fleas living on the backs of rodents: the rodents may have been gerbils rather than rats.

Other researchers in the past have suggested that the disease could have been anything from influenza to anthrax. All of this is a reminder of the many uncertainties that remain around the nature and spread of the Black Death pandemic.

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2.

Avoid the Summer

There’s a peculiar seasonal pattern to the Black Death. In the plague history of Norway from the Black Death 1348-49 to the last outbreaks in 1654, there was never a winter epidemic of plague.

Plague is very different from airborne contagious diseases, which are spread directly between people by droplets: these thrive in cold weather. This conspicuous feature is further proof that the Black Death is an insect-borne disease.

Circa 1666, A burning brazier fills the street with smoke while a bellringer calls for people to bring out their dead, during the Great Plague of 1664-1666. Behind him, two men load a corpse onto a waiting cart. Red crosses are painted on the doors of the houses, wit (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1.

Sealing the house (and the people in it)

Perhaps the most extreme thing Londoners did to help curb the spread of the disease was quarantine any house that had been host to a plague victim by sealing it shut for 40 days. The doors to these houses would be locked and then marked with a huge red cross, above which the words “Lord have mercy upon us” would be scrawled. A guard would also often be posted outside to stop escapees.

Since it was common to seal a house with all of the occupants still inside, regardless of whether they were sick, many Londoners took to bribing the guards tasked with searching homes for signs of the plague to ignore any such signs in their home. When this didn’t work, some resorted to fleeing their homes and all their possessions before their house could be sealed, choosing to risk living on the street rather than succumb to plague or starve to death locked away.

Even when a house was bolted shut and placed under the watch of a burly guard, there were still a number of escape options available to an enterprising occupant. One of the more popular and straightforward escape methods was to simply convince the guard to temporarily leave his post, usually via a bribe. Some of the more clandestine escape methods from the time included tunnelling to freedom, enlisting the help of friends to poison or drug the guards and stealthily making a daring rooftop escape at night like a plague-ridden ninja.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.