We’ve won the lottery! We’re alive in the 21st century! We may be suffering through a possible coronavirus pandemic but at least it’s not the 13th century when the bubonic plague burned through the known world. The coronavirus is not as virulent as the plague where there was, on average, about a 9 in 10 chance of dying within a week. Our highly skilled infectious disease experts have a host of effective protocols and research to fight the virus, while medieval physicians could only rely on what was at hand, mainly strange concoctions, herbs, purging and superstitions.
Consider these old prescriptions as reassurance that medicine has come a long way.
From Elizabeth, Countess of Kent: An Excellent Receipt for the Plague
Take 1 pound of green walnuts, 1/2 ounce of saffron, 1/2 ounce London treacle. beast them together in a mortar and with a little cordial (wine) or some such water. Vapour it over the fire until it becomes electuary (syrup). Keep this in a pot and take as much as a walnut (probably referring to the dose size) and it is good to cure the plague.
Treacle is uncrystalize syrup from sugar, similar to molasses. Recipes like this usually called for it to be at least 10 years old which would’ve made it covered in beneficial mold and cultures.
Vinegar was a favorite remedy for countless ailments but, most especially, to lessen fevers and as a disinfection.
A Cure for Fever
Steep a clothe in good vinegar and place over wounds, making sure they are soaked through. Do this through the day and night.
To Cleanse the House
Places bowls filled with a quantity of vinegar throughout the house and several where the sick lay.
A Meadow Tonic
Gather a good measure of milk thistle, yellow dock, thyme, burdock root, chicory root, nettle leaves, violet leaves and flowers, mint, mustard greens, chickweed. Cover with wine (apple cider) and let sit for three days. Vapour over a fire until boil, then press all together and strain through a fine clothe. Add your best honey.
A Course to Relieve Melancholy
Gather together elderflower, wormwood, mint, nettle and marigold and put in wine (apple cider). Let rest for two days then drink.
As for today, we should follow what our good doctors tell us and wash our hands all the time. Be vigilant, look after our elderly and use common sense. And be a little medieval–use vinegar as a cheap and readily available hand sanitizer.
Note about the header image: This is an illustration of what doctors wore when the plague returned during the 17th century. Similar to the protective covering worn today, the doctor was insulated from germs by a long washable waxed-cloth gown and face mask. The ingenious beak functioned sort of like a air filter to keep from breathing germs and the smell of rotting flesh. The stick was used to administer treatments without having to touch the body. The outfit was not very effective considering how many doctors’ died. I also imagine it wasn’t a very comforting sight, either.