Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Medieval disease

Until the era of Covid-19, Americans didn't worry too much about disease.  Some diseases that had been real killers, like smallpox, have been eradicated, and others, like polio, have been nearly eradicated, due to vaccines.  Some so-called childhood diseases, like measles and mumps, are unlikely if parents get their children vaccinated.  There are vaccines for seasonal flu and for pneumonia.

These are all viral diseases, where the best bet is to build up the body's own immunity (through vaccines).  For bacterial diseases, including even nasty diseases like Lyme disease or bubonic plague, there are antibiotics.  Antibiotics are also very helpful in fighting off any kind of infection.

There were neither vaccines nor antibiotics in the Middle Ages.  For that matter, vaccines were invented in the nineteenth century and antibiotics in the mid-twentieth.  Thus medieval people had to worry about disease a lot more than modern westerners have done in recent generations.  A nasty infection could be a death sentence.  So could polluted water.

There's a reason that child mortality was a lot higher then than it is now, and that the average life expectancy, which is now in the 80s for people in the US, was more like the 50s.  People got worn out, and something or other might sicken and kill you.

(Of course, as I have discussed earlier, some people lived a very long life then, but a lot fewer than now.)

 You might ask, how could people cope with all that death?  In fact one could ask that very question now.  As I write, the Covid-19 death toll in the US is at 200,000 in seven months, or the equivalent of three jumbo jets falling out of the sky and killing everyone on board every day for that period.  And yet people have grown numb.  Families that have lost someone are of course devastated, but for many of the rest the raw terror has long since worn off, and getting together with friends or going to a show seems "worth the risk."  Medieval people would also have been devastated when a family member died, especially a child, but they went about their daily affairs without thinking too much about disease.

There were of course exceptions, most notably the Black Death (bubonic plague), especially its two big outbreaks in the sixth century and the fourteenth (but not in between).  This really was scary, because it spread and killed so fast.  Like Covid, it was easily spread by people who had not yet developed symptoms, so someone trying to escape it could infect those in the place to which they fled.  Strict quarantine measures were put in place, but they were of only limited success, given how close everyone lived to each other in an urban environment.  A city might seem fine one day, and two weeks later three-quarters of the inhabitants would be dead.  They couldn't bury them fast enough.

The plague retreated once "herd immunity" had developed, that is enough people had caught a mild case and recovered that it wasn't being spread any more, but in the meantime probably a third of Europe's population had died.  This is why waiting for herd immunity to save us from Covid is not a viable option.

And the plague's aftermath disrupted Europe's economy for a century, as I have discussed earlier.

Besides the plague, the Middle Ages had most of the same diseases we do, except they didn't have syphilis, which originated in the Americas, and some believe they didn't have our "common cold."  The second most terrifying disease, after the plague, was leprosy.  Lepers, whose skin and eventually toes and fingers shriveled and fell off, were shunned, treated essentially as AIDS patients were when that disease first emerged toward the end of the twentieth century.

Sick people either got well at home or, increasingly, in hospitals.  A hospital was closer to what we would call a hospice, a place where the sick person was kept warm and clean and treated with chicken soup and saint's dust.  The wealthy would endow such hospitals as an act of charity.  (Lepers weren't allowed in hospitals but had to go to their own leper-houses.)  Above are the beds in the medieval hospital of Beaune.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval health and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

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