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HIST 285

Winter 2017

Health and Medicine During the Black Death, 1325-1350

Thesis: What were the roles of plague doctors during the Black Death in the fourteenth century?

Introduction: The Black Death was one of the largest pandemics in history. Today, it is known as the Black Plague or the bubonic plague. Medieval people called it “the blue sickness,” La pest (“the Pestilence”) and “the Great Mortality.” The word bubonic comes from the Latin word bubo or the Italian bilbo, meaning a pustule or swelling. It led to the deaths of 75 to 200 million people, peaking in Europe in the years 1346-53. Most of the victims died within three or four days of developing symptoms, while others died after two weeks. The plague spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, killing an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s total population. Most scholars believe the Black Plague was a bacterial strain of Yersinia pestis. Medieval doctors had no idea of what caused the Plague, and antibiotics were not available during this era. There were different types of doctors during this time period, and challenges came from a lack of fully qualified physicians to treat the number of patients. This paper will examine the reactions of physicians to the Black Death during the fourteenth century.

Part 1: Medical education and medical practices

  1. Hippocrates and Galen
  2. Education, physician vs surgeon
  3. Untrained/unlicensed practitioners that emerged during the Plague

Part 2: Doctors acted as public servants (Wray)

  1. Tasks included recording the deaths due to the plague
  2. Plague doctors were requested to perform autopsies to help determine the cause of death
  3. Plague doctors gave advice to their patients about their conduct before death. The relationship between doctor and patient was governed by a complex ethical code.

Part 3: What doctors believed caused the Black Death

  1. Punishment from God
  2. Miasmatic vapors, bad air
  3. Improper balance of the four Humours (Slavicek)

Part 4: Methods (Cantor)

  1. Doctors practiced bloodletting, putting frogs or leeches
  2. Dung and urine and bad smells
  3. Drinking vinegar, eating crushed minerals, arsenic, mercury

Conclusion: How search for cure led to scientific thinking during the Enlightenment


Primary Sources:

George Deaux, The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969. Chapter IV, pp. 75ff.

Secondary Sources:

Cantor, N. F. (2001). In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. Simon and Schuster.

Siraisi, N. G. (2009). Medieval and early Renaissance medicine: an introduction to knowledge and practice. University of Chicago Press.

Slavicek, Louise Chipley. The Black Death. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.

Wray, Shona Kelly. Communities and Crisis: Bologna during the Black Death. Leiden: Brill, 2

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