The Black Death was probably one of the most devastating pandemics known to man. When the disease spread to Europe between 1346–1353, it killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people, about 30–60% of Europe’s total population at the time. Modern analysis of the Black Death shows us that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The place of origin for this pandemic was probably Central Asia. It spread to Europe carried by the traders of the Silk Road. The unlucky people that caught the disease were usually dead in just a few days. Their final days were extremely unpleasant; the infected people developed symptoms like high fever, severe vomiting, and bleeding from the lungs. The bodies of the victims were also covered with gruesome boils – the pain must have been terrible.
Medicine back in those days was still not a developed science, and the methods used by the physicians were questionable and controversial, if not completely insane. People were desperate; victims of the Black Death were piling up everywhere. The whole situation forced them to come up with all sorts of crazy and impossible cures. Some of the solutions they came up with were probably worse than dying from the plague itself. Here is a selection of some of the more peculiar and terrible cures that probably didn’t help at all.
This solution is one of the sweetest on the list; the next ones are definitely more unpleasant. Treacle is any uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar. The term “treacle” was used by Middle English speakers to signify a kind of medicine. Old herbalists and apothecaries used to make a medicine (also known as theriac or theriaca) which was made out of many ingredients. The theriaca was used in many different situations, such as an antidote treatment for poisons, snakebites, and as a cure for various other diseases. Apparently, it was also considered as a cure for the Black Death. Unfortunately, to be effective, it had to be at least ten years old. People believed that treacle could completely remove the plague from the body. There is some logic to this, as if the syrup was left to mature for some time, disease-fighting molds, yeasts, and other cultures would have developed in it. Still, drinking this nasty thing doesn’t sound like a good idea and probably didn’t work.
2 Rubbing the victim’s body with a chicken
It may sound like a joke, but it was a real method often used by medieval doctors. The whole ritual was called “the Vicary Method.” It was named after Thomas Vicary, the English doctor who invented it. First, a hen’s backside needed to be shaved and then strapped on the swollen lymph nodes of the sick person. All of this was done with a live and breathing chicken. Then, when the chicken got sick too, it needed to be washed and applied on the person again until only the chicken or victim remained healthy. Strangely enough, the technique was widespread. Many chickens got sick and spread their plague-ridden parasites everywhere. Vicary became famous and even today, there is a special lecture held every year in his honor at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.
Bloodletting was a common method for treating the sick, dating back to 800 B.C., and it was used for a wide variety of ailments. Leeches have proven themselves as a reliable medical aid and are even used in modern medicine. Bloodletting with leeches is a relatively painless technique. The thing is, a leech collector back in those days asked for a lot of money, and not everybody could afford them. That is why people used a more dangerous method of bloodletting – cutting the skin open. The used to push a blade into their veins and drain the blood into a bowl. The pain was not a problem as much as the risk of infection in the unsanitary conditions back then.
4 Consuming a spoon of crushed emeralds
It looks like this was a cure for kings. The method is simple: they used to ground down this precious stone in a mortar and pestle, mix it with water and then drink it like a potion. They sometimes mixed it with food or just simply swallowed the powder. Emeralds might be pretty, but the thought of eating them is not so pleasant. They probably taste and feel like crushed glass shards.
5 Applying human excrement paste on the victim
This one is probably the most disgusting. A cure from hell. The inflamed lymph nodes in the armpits or groin of the plague victim were opened to allow the disease to “leave” the body, and then a mixture of tree resin, flower roots, and human excrement was applied directly on the wounds. The “treated” places were then wrapped up. This whole process is probably a good starting point for a whole new disease.