Monday, 31 May 2010

The Great Plague, Science and Medicine

"Bring out your dead!"

The death cart was an unfortunate necessity for dealing with the sheer number of people who had fallen victim to this terrible disease. In the 1600s, the death cart was as common as the rubbish truck that drives past your house every week. Sadly (a bit like our own bin men in snow at Christmas time), it took a while for them to be collected. Before that, dead bodies were just thrown out into the street and left rotting in the middle of the road. Nowadays we can’t imagine doing this, can we? Then the doctors of the times said the bodies should be left in the houses, instead of in the street, where anyone walking past could catch the disease. Then the death cart was established. It would pass by with the call ‘Bring out your dead’ and the poor relatives would bring out the bodies of their loved ones and place them on the cart.

What else did we English do to cope with the plague? What medicine was used at the time, and how exactly did people think the plague was being passed from human to human?

As we mentioned before, the first action was to keep sick people locked inside their houses, but loads more initiatives were formed to fight the disease.

The Privy Council (close advisors of the King) recommended closing all of the public areas where people would be close contact with each other and could catch the plague, such as market places. The crowded streets of London needed to be cleared. Next, it was decided to kill all the dogs and cats of London, because it was suspected these were disease carriers. However, this slaughter actually did more harm than good, because it was actually the rats that mostly carried the plague, and with all the dogs and cats gone, the rats were now free to roam about and spread the disease even further.

Knowledge of science and medicine was not as developed as now, but there were many theories. The Miasma theory of disease was put forward by the brightest minds of the time, and it stated that disease was spread by bad smells. Given the fact that the streets were overflowing with sewage and rubbish, the theory wasn’t that ridiculous. It made sense. At the time, no one knew about the bacteria and viruses that were causing the infection. So one way to deal with the plague at the time was to wear sweet smelling flowers and carry handkerchiefs to prevent inhaling bad smells.

In 1665, a book was written by the Royal College of Physicians. It had a very long title: Royal College of Physicians of London. Certain necessary directions as well for the cure of the plague, as for preventing the infection :with many easie medicines of small charge, very profitable to His Majesties subjects. London: Printed by John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1665.

It’s a really interesting read if you want to learn more about how the great minds of the time approached the plague. (Just remember that during the time, s and f were interchangable. (In case you don't understand words like Majefties, Lordfhips and moft requifite)).
The directions in the book included the following:
~ six or four doctors at least, who may apply themselves to cure the infected. Each would have their own team to help.
~ persons and goods that came from foreign lands would be in isolation for forty days to prevent further diseases.
~ slaughterhouses should also be closed because they are 'offensive' (smell-wise ... no vegetarianism here!)
~ A house known to be infected must be watched in order to make sure no one escapes and wanders the streets.
~ fires could be burned to purify the air
~ the nosegays or handkerchiefs that people carried must be held "a little in their mouths as they go in the streets" and anointed with oil for their noses.
Whether or not any of these measures were in any way successful is doubtful. Remember that all of the qualified doctors left London, which left the unqualified volunteers to do the job for them.

NEXT TIME: Important Victims of the Plague

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Great Plague of 1665

Yet another plague, but of course, that’s what The Plaguemaker is all about! The Great Plague was, surprisingly, not as bad as the Black Death of 1347, but it still managed to kill 100,000 people in London. It was also equally gruesome, and given the swift evacuation of the wealthy from the cities again, the poor were once again left to deal with the consequences of the illness and decay.

King Charles promptly left for his estate in the countryside, the higher classes followed suit. Even the doctors left London in fear of contracting the disease. Ironically, the medical profession felt they were qualified to write books and articles on the plague, even though they weren’t witnessing it first hand, and much of their anecdotal evidence was hearsay from servants or friends.

Unfortunately, the 17th century saw the plague hit the UK more than once. The number of plague deaths went up and down in waves. Over 30,000 people were killed in 1603, but the next year it went down to 896. In 1609, over 4,000 people died, but in 1610, it went down to 1,800. Over 41,000 people died in 1625, and over 10,000 in 1636.

And what happened to those who were unfortunate to contract the plague? If you thought compassion and assistance would come your way, you’d be wrong. Once the plague was known to have entered your home, the house and its inhabitants would immediately in lockdown. The incubation period for an entire family was around four to six days, so if one member of your family contracted the illness, and you were promptly banged up with them, it was extremely likely you would contract the plague within a short space of time. Worse still, the whole of London would also know that your house was infected because a large red cross would be painted across the door, with the words 'Lord have mercy on us' added for effect. There was no hiding from the vile disease.

The plague of 1665 was made worse because London was experiencing a very hot summer. And with no real sewage or disposal system, rubbish would be left all over the streets for the rats to get their teeth into. Rats brought the fleas and spread the disease, but the disease ridden fleas were also clinging on to other animals such as dogs and cats. This lack of hygiene is thought to be the major reason behind the surge of infected people during this time.

So was there anyone left to tend to the sick? As all the medical professionals had fled the city, volunteers came forward to aid the sick. Local women became nurses, but only in the sense that they checked up on people who were known to have had the plague and, if the patients could afford it, buy them food.

Obviously, people were desperate to leave London. But the only way to leave the city during the plague was to get a certificate of health. Naturally, with so many people after this vital document, a number of people began to sell forgeries. Even if you managed to get yourself out of London, life in the country was no picnic either, because of the threat of illness to country residents. So those people who were able to make it out of London were treated to a systematic regime of scraping, heating, soaking, airing, and pressing ‘flat’ to ‘eliminate "pestilential matter".'

The most reliable source of the time, Samuel Pepys, wrote many diary entries, including: "This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and "Lord have mercy upon us" writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw." (June 17th 1665);
"To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed - being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and perticularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away - which God dispose of to his own glory." (June 10th 1665);
"But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that have taken leave of the world.... I to the Exchange, and I think there was not 50 people upon it and but few more like to be, as they told me, Sir G Smith and others. Thus I think to take Adieu today of London streets ...." (August 28th 1665).

NEXT TIME: The Great Plague, Science and Medicine

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Black Death

There were two major plague epidemics in this country – the Great Plague of the 1600s, and The Black Death of the 1300s. Today we will be looking at the latter.

The less than cheery title is more than apt for this dreadful happening. So what is the Black Death? A horrible illness, similar in symptoms to those I described in my last blog post, the Black Death is thought to have originated in Egypt. There
was also a major epidemic in China, which spread throughout Asia, Europe and then to Britain. The Black Plague in Europe began around 1347 and killed over a quarter of the population. One year later it had reached England.

One of the theories of how the plague spread points to the Mongol Empire. Rulers, who had been in battles across Asia and Europe, would settle in various places across the continents for trade. Italian merchants would come for silks and spices, which had a very high value in Europe. However, the traders brought with them Asian black rats, which were carrying the fleas which had been infected by the plague. The rats made their way into the traders’ supplies. By the time the supplies had arrived back in Italy, half the supply ships’ crews had already died or were dying of the plague. It did not take long for the disease to spread throughout Europe.

So victims of the plague were dropping dead everywhere. The disease was fast-moving and ruthless, and could spread around an entire town within weeks. Death became so commonplace that people of the Middle Ages thought that the world was going through an apocalypse. Of course, poor sanitation and a lack of scientific and medical knowledge certainly didn’t help matters.

From large towns to small villages, people prayed fervently to God but their prayers went unanswered. And for those struck down, even their religion held little comfort. Not all the sick could be given religious last rights because there simply were not enough clergymen to deal with the rapidly dying population. Worse still, some men of the church simply refused to provide these blessings for fear of catching the plague themselves.

When God wouldn’t answer their prayers, a group of people decided to go to extreme measures to make God listen. They were the Flagellants. They would gather around in towns and beat themselves to atone for their sins. This group had been in existence before this time, but their extreme nature, and the fact that the traditional church was not helping out as much as people would have liked during this terrible time, meant that more and more people joined them.

A famous Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote his book The Decameron during the time of the plague. This tells us a lot about how the plague spread and affected people. He said: “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 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 [sins] had had its origin some years before in the East.” (page 26 of the link)

“The evil went yet further for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the cloth of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them seemed thereby to contract the disease.” (27)

“Many died daily or nightly in the public streets; of many others, who died at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbours until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings; and what with their corpses and the corpses of others who died on every hand the whole place was a sepulchre” (31-32)

All in all, a grim time, and what’s worst, it wasn’t the last the people of England, and in particular London, had seen of the plague.


And finally
Here is an interview I did last week at The Sweet Bookshelf