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.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Medieval soap

"Wash your hands!"  We've been told this since we were little kids, and in a time of pandemic it's especially important.  We assume (rightly) that soap is a crucial ingredient of the process.  Did medieval people have soap?  Yes indeed, though not our kind of soap, in handy wrapped bars or even decorative shapes, smelling delicately of verbena or sandlewood.

The ancient world had not been big on soap, although they knew about it.  Athletes had cleaned up after exercise by smearing themselves with oil and sand, then scraping off the sand with little scrapers, taking the sweat with it.  You can buy "olive oil soap" today, but it's not the same.

Soap is made from mixing rendered fat or oil with a "base" (a base as opposed to an acid, think back to high school chemistry).  Medieval people cooked down (rendered) the fat from meat, which we often throw away, and mixed it with lye made from mixing water with wood ash.  This made a powerful soap, good for dissolving dirt and killing bacteria (although they didn't know about bacteria, they recognized that cleanliness was healthier).  Soap usually didn't come in bars but was soft, more like liquid soap (but no handy pump-top dispensers), and had no delicate fragrance.  Lard-based soap could become more or less solid, though oil-based soap stayed more or less liquid.  This was the normal soap in Europe and the US until the mid-nineteenth century.

(One may note that lard, made from pig fat, is often still recommended for pie crusts, and you can buy it at the grocery store.  But I digress.)

This pre-modern soap would not be described as "gentle on your hands."  Farm families could and did make their own.  In medieval cities, however, soap-making could be a skilled profession, even sometimes a guild, with the different soap-makers promoting soap that came in balls rather than as a thick liquid (making it more convenient), even scented with minced lavender leaves or the like.

Between the difficulty of heating up enough hot water for a bath and not wanting to scrub too much lye-based soap on your delicate parts, medieval people did not bathe as often as the modern model.  They valued cleanliness, but some things are just not easy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on health and hygiene in the Middle Ages, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon and other on-line booksellers.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Medieval schools

It's back to school time!  Except for now, in the era of pandemic, a lot of schools are being delayed or carrying out teaching on-line (obviously impossible in the Middle Ages, or for that matter the twentieth century).  Did schools open in September in the twelfth century?

Short answer, no.  For starters, there were no public schools.  In fact, what we think of as normal, that is more-or-less universal education provided at public schools, appeared for the first time in the nineteenth century.  And it was not until the 1960s that a concerted effort was made to get everybody even in the US into school until they turned 18.

Now, in the midst of pandemic, there is a great deal of concern about the need for education, complete with dire threats about how children will be hurt if they can't get back in the classroom.  Medieval parents would have been surprised to hear that their children would suffer permanent harm by not attending school.

Medieval schools were all associated with churches. Monasteries and nunneries all had schools attached where children who joined, as their parents' offering to God, would get a good classical education.  They would need it when they grew up to be monks or nuns.  The less-strict monasteries, cathedrals, houses of canons regular, and nunneries would often offer an education to day-students as well, ones who did not intend to enter the cloister themselves but who wanted at least a little education.  These schools ran all year, rather than fall through spring.  It was of course expected that parents would pay for them.

As Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, these schools taught Christianity along with reading, arithmetic, and a little history and geography and music.  Europe's Jewish and Muslim minorities had their own schools.  There were no "atheist" schools.  Medieval people would not have understood why schools today can't teach religion, just as they wouldn't be able to grasp the separation of church and state.

Both aristocrats and well-to-do townspeople would send their children as day-students to these church-connected schools.  But this was usually not the children's first experience with education.  Mothers would teach their children the rudiments of reading and figuring when they were five or six, just as mothers still often do.  Note that this is one of many indications of the important role played in society then by medieval women.

When students got to school, initially all learning was in Latin.  At a minimum they would be able to read Latin; the best-educated would also be able to write.  Note that being able to read and able to write are two different skills, even though we now group them together (see more here on medieval literacy).  By the late twelfth century, a lot of schooling started taking place in the vernacular, Old French, Old Italian, Middle High German, or whatever.  Young aristocrats seem more inclined to be able to write in their normal spoken language than in Latin (not surprising).  Many composed stories and poems.

But how about the great mass of the population that was not aristocratic and did not intend their children for careers in the church?  They never went to a formal school or learned to read and write.  Modern schools have summers off, which is left over from nineteenth-century efforts to get the farmer's children to attend (children were needed to help on the farm in the busy growing season).  If medieval peasants had to agree to a formal agreement, they would make a mark on the parchment in place of a signature, usually an unsteady short line.

This did not mean that they were ignorant.  They might have quite advanced technical skills.  Farming is hard.  So is being a miller, a baker, a brewer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a mason, or the other skilled trades that a peasant village needed.  These people would know basic figuring and would know how to keep track of things (like money), even if they knew no Latin.

Education expanded in the late Middle Ages, especially in Renaissance Italy, but it was still something for townspeople, not for peasants.  Parents would send their son off to school with a servant, who was supposed to learn along with the boy and beat him if he didn't do his homework.

Starting in the twelfth century, the ambitious young man (not woman) might want to continue his education at a university.  Basic schooling would be over by age 14 or so, and it was off to the university, to learn complicated subjects, like theology or Roman law or medicine, and to drink and have fun.  University students were primarily from families of well-to-do townspeople.  The Sorbonne in Paris, pictured below (though this is a post-medieval building), was the most prestigious medieval university.  (See more here on medieval universities.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social history, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers, either as an ebook or in print.