From Mediaeval times until the mid-1800s, it was generally believed that diseases were caused and spread through a corruption of the air or ‘miasma’. This belief probably arose because of the foul smells associated with illness and the lack of hygiene common at that time. When it came to preventing or treating such diseases, a lack of any knowledge of modern science or medicine meant that people had only the beliefs and practices of their ancestors to rely on. While some of these, mainly herbal, remedies have been since found to be effective (e.g. wormwood for stomach complaints and lungwort for respiratory problems), most were totally ineffective when the Black Death swept across Europe in the 1300s.
The most common form of the Black Death was the bubonic plague, characterized by the appearance of black-coloured buboes in the groin, neck and armpits, which oozed pus and blood, together with fever, headaches, painful aches in the joints, nausea and vomiting. It was highly contagious and usually fatal. The Black Death was universally feared – it spread ferociously fast, and death could occur within a couple of hours of the onset of symptoms. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, Europe suffered a series of attacks from the plague, and the consequences were enormous. Between 1348 and 1350 alone, the Black Death is estimated to have killed between one- and two-thirds of the population of Europe.
The plague was associated with a characteristic stink – the huge number of victims together with the rapid and high death rate associated with the plague would have given rise to an extraordinarily strong stench. This reinforced in most people’s minds the idea that the disease was carried in contaminated air. Among the more obvious remedies that were proposed, therefore, were those based on aroma – the aim was to counter the bad air with sweet-smelling agents, which were thought to have the power to overcome the harmful evil odours. Herbs and spices were most popular, though generally anything that smelt good was considered useful.
Those who could afford it burned a range of aromatic herbs – such as rosemary, juniper, laurel, pine and beech – in their houses, to help ward off bad smells and purify the air. Camphor and sulphur were also thought to be effective. Sweet-smelling herbs, such as lavender, sage, thyme, meadowsweet and winter savoury, were dried and strewn on the floor, sewn into cloth bags or carried as posies. Cloths infused with aromatic oils, such as camphor, rosemary or laurel, that were used to cover the face when going out were a more expensive option. Vinegar was also thought to be an effective deterrent.
Even wealthier people could afford pomanders. These consisted of pierced metal cases containing resin or wax embedded with a multitude of expensive aromatic spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Held to the nose, the pierced casing allowed the scent to escape, thus (supposedly) offering the owner protection from the air-borne pestilence. The attractions of the aromatic spices, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, are perhaps obvious, but ambergris, a waxy secretion of the intestinal tract of the sperm whale, was also used in pomanders. Unlikely as it may seem, ambergris has a pleasant sweet fragrance and is still used today by the perfume industry. Only the very rich could afford to carry ambergris pomanders, and these were considered to be more potent against the plague than other pomanders.
In Elizabethan times there are reports of many ‘cures’ for the plague: here are two of those based on herbal remedies…
“Take yarrow, tansy, featherfew, of each a handful, and bruise them well together, then let the sick party make water into the herbs, then strain them, and give it the sick to drink.” (The belief that drinking your own urine is a panacea for all ills is a relatively common one even today.)
“Take of sage, rue, briar leaves, elder leaves, of each a handful, stamp them and strain them with a quart of white wine, and put thereto a little ginger, and a good spoonful of the best treacle, and drink thereof morning and evening.“
Although the remedies available at this time were totally ineffective at treating people who developed the plague there is a possibility that some may, strangely enough, have actually been of some help in preventing the spread of the plague. Wormwood, rosemary, feverfew and tansy, in particular, are today recognized for their flea-repelling properties (indeed wormwood was used as a flea deterrent during the plague years) – and fleas and the rats that carried them are now generally thought to have been responsible for carrying and spreading this devastating disease.