The Unseen Enemy: Pandemic Mythology

The Cures

Sometimes the cures were just as terrifying as the monsters that are rumored to cause the disease.

Flagellation

Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) 

It is no small surprise that the terror of the black death would drive many of the population of Medieval Europe towards God seeking a cure. For the brethren of the cross, also known as the flagellants the plague was a curse from Heaven. They were being punished for their sins and only with penance would the plague be lifted.

The flagellants would travel from village to village with little else but the clothes on their backs for comfort. They carried with them whips that they used to self mutilate in hopes that God would forgive them and all mankind.

Blood letting

The Four Temperaments, Charles Lebrun (1619-1690)
From left to right: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic, and phlegmatic

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek Physician and philosopher created the theory of bodily humors. According to him the human body was kept in balance between four fluids that each characterized a certain human nature. Blood corresponded to the sanguine nature, yellow bile the choleric, black bile the melancholic, and phlegm the phlegmatic. This theory led to medical practitioners attempting to keep these fluids in balance with techniques such as blood letting. One common method of doing this was the use of leeches whose saliva stimulates blood flow and thus keeps the wound open for as long as they were applied.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein.

Segment from the Hippocratic Oath

Along with many other aspects of Greek culture such as the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, the word of Hippocrates was praised as wisdom from a superior age throughout medieval Europe at the time of the Black Death. Thus over 1500 years after his death, his methods were still being applied by medical practitioners. Unfortunately, This mentality combined with the oppressive attitude of the Roman Catholic Church prevented any serious progress in medicine until the renaissance. Ironically it was the Black Death that was one of the inciting incidents for the renaissance. From death, came rebirth.

Galen – Physician of Rome

Statue of Asclepius, the Son of Apollo and God of medicine , Vatican Museums – New Wing

At the height of the Roman empire, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the worst pandemic the Classical world had ever seen arose in the east. Brought back to Rome from soldiers returning from campaign in Parthia, the disease quickly spread across the well-connected infrastructure of the Roman World. At the forefront, witnessing the horrors of the Antonine Plague was Galen. A Greek-born physician, Galen witnessed as the plague ravaged Rome in 166CE. The Roman senator Cassius Dio records a later outbreak of this plague in 189CE that was killing over 2000 Romans a day.

In those that were going to survive who had diarrhoea, a black exanthem appeared over the whole body. It was ulcerated in most cases and dry in all. The blackness was due to a remnant of blood which had putrified in the fever blisters, like some ash which nature had deposited on the skin…

Galen

As we all pull together in these challenging times we have to be thankful that we live in the age we do. What once would have been an apocalyptic event that reshaped human history is now an enemy we have the tools to fight against. But, only if we work together. In times of war, every citizen must contribute if the nation is to succeed; and so, in this invisible war, we must all play our part in coming out victorious.

No matter where you are, stay strong, stay safe, and together we will endure.

Citations

  • “Moreover, a pestilence occurred, the greatest of any of which I have knowledge; for two thousand persons often died in Rome in a single day.” Roman History by Cassius Dio Volume IX Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927
  • Littman, R., & Littman, M. (1973). Galen and the Antonine Plague. The American Journal of Philology, 94(3), 243-255. doi:10.2307/293979

2 comments

  1. Hi Chris, what an interesting and beautiful website / blog. You have put such care, such thoughtfulness into this for our benefit (the unknown readers out there!!). thank you. I shall slowly read more of your pages in due course. from Anne in Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Anne! Your kind words mean more than I can possibly express. I am so grateful you took the time to share your thoughts.

      I publish only once a week on Saturday which gives me time to make sure what I share is of a standard I’d want to read myself. I hope to see you around in the future!

      Thank you again, stay safe and take care ❤️🌍

      Like

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