Cures and Preventatives for the Great Mortality

Catherine de Arc


As is often the case, prevention of this disease is far better than cure. There are a number of suggested options. These are a few of them:

Option 1 – Stay by a fire
The german historian, Jacob von Konigshofen records of the events of 1349 in his chronicle (begun in 1382) that “the pope at Avignon stopped all sessions of court, locked himself in a room, allowed no one to approach him and had a fire burning before him all the time.” Pope Clement VI did this on the instructions of his physician, Guy de Chauliac, and he did not contract the plague.

Option 2 – Live temperately
Among whom there were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much as a preservative against seizures of this kind. Wherefore they banded together, and dissociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking moderately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines, holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them, and diverting their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron

Option 3 – Live as though each day were your last
Others, the bias of whose minds was in the opposite direction, maintained, that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil: and that which they affirmed they also put in practice, so far as they were able, resorting day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure, and by preference making the houses of others, as it were, their inns, if they but saw in them aught that was particularly to their taste or liking; which they, were readily able to do, because the owners, seeing death imminent, had become as reckless of their property as of their lives; so that most of the houses were open to all comers, and no distinction was observed between the stranger who presented himself and the rightful lord. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron

Option 4 – Banish evil smells
It was well known that evil smells contributed to the spread of the plague. In 1359 King Edward III wrote to the Lord Mayor of London:
“You are to make sure that all the human excrement and other filth lying in the street of the city is removed. You are to cause the city to be cleaned from all bad smells so that no more people will die from such smells.”

The Franciscan monk Fra Michele di Piazza said in Historia Sicula ab anno 1337 ad annum 1361 that the plague spread “propter infectionem hanelitus” (by infection of the breath). (Margotta, Roberto (1996) History of Medicine, Hamlyn, London)

Giovanni Boccaccio also mentions in the introduction to his Decameron the use of perfumes in plague affected areas, though more perhaps for comfort than for health:
“They therefore walked abroad, carrying in the hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and the dying, and the odours of drugs.”

Many methods were devised for purifying the air and removing bad smells. These were proposed by the London College of Physicians and published with the Orders thought meete by Her Majestie, and her Privy Councell in November 1578. These orders and advices were reprinted several times in the late sixteenth century.

“Preservative by correcting the air in Houses. Take Rosemary dried, or Juniper, Bayleaves, or Frankincense, cast the same on a Chafing dish, and receive the fume or smoke thereof: Some advise to be added Lavender, or Sage." (My first preparation.) The picture at the end of this has a copy of the original page with this recipe on it.

"Take a quantity of Vinegar very strong, and put to it some small quantity of Rosewater, ten branches of Rosemary, put them all into a basin, then take five or six Flintstones, heated in the fire till they be burning hot, cast them into the same Vinegar, & so let the fumes be received from place to place in your house."

"... take a handful of Rue, and as much common Wormwood, and bruise them a little; and put them into a pot of Earth or Tin, with so much Vinegar as shall cover the herbs: keep this pot close covered or stopped, and when you fear any infection, dip into this Vinegar a piece of a sponge, and carry it in your hand and smell to it, or else put it into a round ball [a container] of Ivory or Juniper made full of holes of the one side, carrying it in your hand use to smell thereunto, renewing it once in a day."

"It is good in going abroad into the open air in the streets, to hold some things of sweet savor in their hands, or in the corner of a handkerchief, as a sponge dipped in Vinegar & Rosewater mixed, or in Vinegar, wherein Wormwood, or Rue called also Herb-grace, hath been boiled." (My second preparation)

Option 5 – Remedies to be taken
John Gerard in his Historie of Plants states that “the leaves of rue eaten with the kernels of Walnuts or figs stamped together and made into a masse or paste, is good against all evill aires, the pestilence or plague, resists poison and all venome.” (My third preparation)

These three are from Queen Elizabeth’s Advice:
"Preservative by way of inward medicine: Take a quantity of Rue, or Wormwood, or of both, and put it into a pot of usual drink, close stopped, let it lie so in steep a whole night, and drink thereof in the morning fasting."
"For women with child, or such as be delicate and tender, and cannot away with taking of medicines. Make a toast of white or of the second bread, as you think good, and sprinkle on it being hot a little good wine vinegar, made with Rose leaves, and for want of it any good common or used vinegar, & spread on the toast a little butter, and cast thereon a little powder of Cinnamon, and eat it in the morning fasting. The poor which can not get vinegar nor buy Cinnamon, may eat bread and Butter alone, for Butter is not only a preservative against the plague, but against all manner of poisons." (My fourth preparation)

"In all Summer plagues, it shall be good to use Sorell sauce to be eaten in the morning with bread, And in the fall of the leaf to use the juice of Barberries with bread also."


If you already have the plague, in spite of taking the above measures, it may be worth trying some of these:

Option 6 – Salves for the skin from Elizabeth’s Advice:
"Take of Scabious two handfuls, stamp it in a stone mortar with a pestle of stone if you can get any such, then put unto it of old swine's grease salted, two ounces, and the yolk of an egg, stamp them well together, & lay part of this warm to the sore."

"Take of the leaves of Mallows, of Chamomile flowers, of either of them a handful, of Linseed beaten into powder two ounces, boil the Mallow leaves first cut, and the flowers of the Chamomile in fair water standing above a fingers breadth, boil all them together until all the water almost be spent: then put thereunto the Linseed, of Wheat flower half a handful, of swine's grease the skins taken away iii. ounces, of oil of Roses two ounces, stir ... with a stick, and let them all boil together on a soft fire without smoke, until the water be utterly spent, beat them all together in a mortar, until they be well incorporated together, & in feeling smooth, & not rough: then make part thereof hot in a dish set upon a chafing dish of coals, & lay it thick upon a linen cloth applying it to the sore."

Option 7 – Lance the bubos
Guy de Chauliac contracted the plague himself and records what he did to survive it – "The swelling should be softened with figs and cooked onions mixed with yeast and butter. When they are open they should be treated with the cure for ulcers. Towards the end of the plague I developed a fever with a swelling in the groin. I was ill near on six weeks. When the swelling had ripened and had been treated in the way I prescribed, I escaped, by God's good grace." His usual cure for ulcers was to cut them open and burn them with a red hot iron.

And if all else fails, you can pray. Many thought that the plague was sent by God as retribution for sinners. Boaccaccio writes “I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so calamitously, had spread into the West.
In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.” Mere prayer might not be enough so you could join the flagellants who paraded through the country beating themselves, but the church did not approve of such activities and Pope Clement VI tried to stamp them out. Pilgrimage was an option. In England the most popular destination was Canterbury. St Thomas a Becket was known to help the sick, as Chaucer describes in the Canterbury Tales.
Then longen folk to go on pilgrimáges,
And palmers for to seeken strange strands
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands,
And specially from every shire's end
Of Engeland to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen when that they were sick.

I submit for your consideration four of these remedies:

(1) This is a selection of dried herbs to be cast into a chafing dish, the smoke of which will purify the air in the house. My mixture contains rosemary and bay leaves, the two preferred ingredients listed, with the optional sage and lavender added just in case.

(2) This is a mix of red wine vinegar and rose water into which you can dip a sponge to carry around with you to smell as needed.

(3) Just in case John Gerard knows more than the London College of Physicians I have prepared a sample of his remedy. This is rue beaten to a paste with walnut kernels.

(4) I have made both the rich and poor versions of this remedy. White toast sprinkled with vinegar, buttered, then sprinkled with cinnamon. I added some sugar as well, since that is also well known to have medicinal benefits. There is also bread and butter for those unable to afford vinegar or cinnamon (though it is pretty flash bread for the truly poor).

(5) This is a pilgrim badge from Canterbury to show that I have been there. See how far I am willing to go for an arts and sciences competition.