What Hygiene Was Like During the Black Plague - The Comprehensive Minds

What Hygiene Was Like During the Black Plague  

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague swept through the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In Europe, it wiped out as many as 50 million people or more than half the continent. But did the European hygiene practices at the time help or hurt the management of this deadly epidemic? 

Today we're going to examine what European hygiene was like during the Black Plague. OK, grab your loofah. We're off to Europe in the 1300s. 



Vector Boomtime

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If you were a flea, rat, or louse, the 14th century was a good time to be alive because you were thriving in filth. Plus, you had a steady job spreading disease. A flea would bite a rat that was infected with the plague. And when the flea was hungry for its next meal, it would jump onto a human and bite them, transmitting disease from rat to human. 

Doctors of the era never identified fleas as a vector for the plague. So people continued to sleep on straw bedding that was teeming with vermin, never realizing the risks they were taking for their barely comfy bed.  


Bathing The Buboes Away

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Europe wasn't very clean in the 14th century and everything was pretty much covered in grime. Bathing did not occur every day for commoners. However, they knew grime wasn't cool and most peasants began their day by at least washing their hands and face. 

Contrary to the stereotype, medieval Europeans did occasionally take baths. The rich bathed in private tubs, while everyone else visited public baths or dunked in the local stream. Bathing was identified as a treatment for the plague. 

But instead of bathing in water, some recommended bathing in vinegar and rose water. Vinegar, a common medieval medical treatment, was considered a great tool in stopping the plague. Plague doctors sometimes washed their hands in vinegar or placed vinegar sponge in their masks. And if vinegar wasn't powerful enough for you, you could follow other recommendations to take a bath in your own urine. 

But washing in your own urine may sound like a decent option when you realize in medieval times, people had to make their own soap. This required a few ingredients-- ashes from an oak tree, tallow, which is Animal fat, lime, which was heated to become quicklime, salt, flour, water, a pot, a pan, fire, and a sturdy stick to stir with. Not to mention a few days and of course, the knowledge of how to put it all together Yeah, urine looks like an easier option.  


Cleanliness Did Not Save Everyone

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Even if you did practice superior hygiene, that didn't protect you from harm. In some areas, the Jewish population had a mortality rate lower than their neighboring Christians. This was likely because of their sanitary traditions. 

Instead of learning a few simple lessons from their healthy neighbors, Christians went with more complicated and decidedly brutal ideas. Some Christians believed Jews were resistant to the plague, accused them of tainting wells to spread the disease, and some felt the plague was actually punishment from God for allowing Jews to openly live in their community as, well, Jews. 

This led some Christians on a mission to convert, exile, torture, and sometimes kill their Jewish neighbors. This despite several popes declaring Jews had nothing to do with the plague. But mobs aren't known for their listening skills. 

Jewish communities were vilified, oppressed, and individuals were compelled to confess to nefarious deeds that they did not commit just to avoid punishment, which didn't always save them. According to the Nuremberg Chronicle, in 1348, all the Jewish residents in Germany were burned, having been accused of poisoning the wells, as many of them confessed. 

In hindsight, it looks a lot like the lower infection rates were because Jewishhygiene practices required more handwashing than the Christian counterparts. Handwashing. Yeah, that seems more probable than God's wrath.  


Tough Medicine

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Doctors in the 14thcentury had no idea how to effectively treat the plague. And in fact, many of their treatments actually spread the disease. For example, plague sufferers experienced swelling in their lymph nodes, called buboes. 

Doctors recommended cutting open the buboes and draining the pus to let the disease leave the body. Then to the wound, they would apply a mixture of plant roots-- sounds good-- resin-- seems reasonable--and dried feces. Yeah, that ruined it. And never wanting to be wasteful, some recommended collecting the drained pus from the buboes to drink. An almost certainly fatal suggestion. 


Bodies Everywhere

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Fearing contamination, Europeans tried to avoid infection. But it wasn't just the walking afflicted that had to be dodged. It was also dead. They were everywhere. Towns and cities struggled to dispose of the overwhelming number of cadavers during the plague. 

According to 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, many perished daily or nightly in the public streets. Of many others who perished at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbors until the stench carried the tidings. 

Another chronicler in Florence wrote, "all the citizens did little else except to carry the slain to be buried." Europeans had some things figured out and established sanitation policies to bury infected bodies in mass graves. These were to be located outside of town and in deep pits. But deep is relative and keeping up with the body count was a never-ending task. 

Some cities were so overwhelmed that dogs dragged cadavers back into town through the streets. According to 14th-century chronicler Agnolo di Tura, some of the burial sites were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged cadavers forth and devoured many.  


This Place Is a Cesspool

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Before indoor plumbing, human waste created a public health crisis. In the 14th century, townsfolk might share one toilet among dozens of households. Heavy rains and floods caused community cesspits to overflow, which sent human waste cascading into the local water supply. And if you didn't even like the idea of going to a place called the cesspit, much less the long walk to get there to dispose of your waste, many emptied their chamberpots directly into the street. 

Rats are not picky and will eat any food they can find, even discarded or undigested food mingled with feces. So these open sewers attracted rats with their friends the fleas, along with other vermin, all of whom were partners in disease transmission. 

Having begun to see the connection between affluence and disease, England's parliament tried to stop people from dumping waste into the water supply. In 1388, the body declared, "so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be cast and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters that the air there has grown greatly corrupt and infected and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen."  

In the 14th century, Europeans believed foul smell spread disease. In an attempt to combat the plague, they carried sweet-smelling flowers and pomanders, which are small centered objects, to cleanse the air. 

The plague doctor costume became emblematic of the era. The birdlike mask worn by doctors held dried roses, herbs like mint or spices thought to protect against infection. Doctors donned the mask and a full-body covering when treating victims of the plague. 


The outlandish outfit may have indeed warded against infection, though not because of the herbs and spices. Being covered head to toe meant the doctors had unknowingly invented a medieval hazmat suit.  


One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others, It Is Much More Worse 

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In the 14th century, civilization had not yet reached the age of production and consumers had little variety from which to choose. Not so for the Black Plague. You had a choice. The plague came in not one, but three varieties-- bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. 

Bubonic plague spread via flea bites and infected the lymphatic system. Pneumonic plague infected the lungs, after inhaling aerosolized bacteria. And septicemic is when the bacteria infects the blood through direct exposure, or via lungs, or lymphatic system. 

If you were unlucky, you contracted the bubonic plague, which had a survival rate between 25 and 75%. If you were very unlucky, you were infected with the pneumonic plague, which had a survival rate between 5% and 10%. And if you were very, very unlucky you contracted the septicemic plague which had a survival rate of-- well, it really didna have a survival rate. It was virtually unstoppable. It had a mortality rate of 99% to 100%. 

Interestingly, despite hundreds of years of medical advancements, the septicemic plague is almost always fatal, even today. A silver lining to the septicemic plague is that it's difficult to catch. Of course, if you do something silly, it increases your odds. 

Bloodletting was one of the most popular medical treatments in the 14th century. Doctors often treated fevers by bleeding their patients to remove heat from the body, and bleeding was used on plague patients. 

Doctors believed, partially correctly, that the plague infected the blood. As a result, they recommended cutting open veins to let the disease leave the body. However, the medical treatment also exposed doctors and others to the septicemic plague. Very, very, very bad luck.  


Flooring: Carpet, Hardwood, Or Filth

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In the 14th century, Europeans often laid straws, or rushes, on their floors. Straw covered up the dirt floor in poor people's homes. While wildflowers were sometimes added to the rushes, and the top layer changed occasionally, the bottom layers might remain for decades. 

In the 16th century, Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher, and Christian scholar were disturbed to find that in many homes, the bottom layer is left undisturbed sometimes for 20 years, harboring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. 

These putrid rushes exhaled a vapor that was harmful to the health, Erasmus declared. They also attracted rodents and let bacteria flourish. It was an inclusive vacation resort for the plague.  


The Italians Invent The Quarantine

When the Black Plague struck, Europeans knew the disease was contagious. In some areas, cities tried to turn away ships that had visited infected areas to protect their population. 

In 1348, Venice became the first to enforce a 30-day day isolation period for ships and travelers to make sure they weren't infected. In later outbreaks of the plague, the city extended the isolation to 40 days, giving birth to the term quarantine, from the Italianquaranta, meaning 40. 

Unfortunately, even these efforts failed to stop the spread of the disease. Tens of thousands still perished in Venice.  


The Pope Flames

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The doctor to Pope ClementVI, Gui de Chauliac, said the epidemic shaped Europe's doctors. They dared not visit the sick for fear of being infected. And when they did visit them, they did hardly anything for them. 

De Chauliac instructed PopeClement VI to sit alone between two bonfires. The doctor claimed this treatment would cleanse the air and prevent infection. The fires may have had the unintended effect of keeping plague-ridden rats at bay. But combined with its forced isolation, it kept the pope plague-free.  

Benefits Of The Black Plague

The Black Plague wiped outtens of millions of Europeans, but history's deadliest epidemic had a surprising benefit-- at least to those who survived. According to research by Dr. Sharon DeWitte, the plague improved the health and lifespan of people who lived through the epidemic. For 200 years afterward, people's diets improved and they lived longer than pre-plague Europeans. 

Scholars point to several potential explanations for the improvements. The smaller population following the plague enjoyed higher wages and cheaper food prices, which helps explain the better diets. And survivors of the plague might have been harder since the black plague eliminated so many people. 

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