Plague is an acute infectious anthroponotic disease caused by Yersinia pestis, characterized by severe intoxication and damage to lymph nodes, lungs, and other organs. Plague usually affects rodents, which infect humans. In humans, the disease has different forms: when infected through the skin develops a bubonic or septic form, when infected by airborne – pulmonary. The source of infection with primary pulmonary plague is a sick person. Plague epidemics have been observed since ancient times and usually began in Asia or Africa, many times in Europe, and caused a large number of casualties.
In the bubonic form of plague, the entrance gate for infection is the skin and rarely the mucous membranes. It ordinarily occurs as an effect of a flea bite infected with the plague. Humans can also be infected by direct contact with rodents or by skinning and handling the meat of camel plague patients. In these cases, infection through the skin is possible, and the pathogen enters the mucous membranes. Although the Plague killed millions of people, according to various sources, some people were able to protect themselves by different means of prevention. Others developed treatments that cured people, even though some of these methods were less effective.
The Beginning of the Plague
When the deadly plague began in Italy, which had taken the lives of people in the East a few years before, the Italians explained it as God’s punishment. According to them, they were punished by the action of celestial bodies through proscribed acts. Although the symptoms of plague in Europe differed from that in the East, the main symptom of the disease in the East was bleeding, especially from the nose. It was a clear sign of imminent death. In Italy, the symptoms were different (Boccaccio 2). At the beginning of the disease, there was some swelling either in the groin or under the armpits. The swelling was of different sizes; after some time, the manifestations of the infection began to turn into black or bright spots. Symptoms appeared on the hands and near the thigh and later were already on every part of the body.
Accordingly, people were faced with the question of how to cure these diseases, because at first, the advice of doctors was not effective. Since the nature of the disease has not been studied and experts were often thinkers who did not know medicine (Boccaccio 3). Also, in the midst of high mortality, it became clear that the infection was caused by contact with sufferers and even after the patient’s death by touch with his clothes.
The Least Effective Prevention Methods
The population most often used insufficiently effective methods of treatment of the disease. Since the significant influence of religion and insufficient scientific knowledge gave rise to prevention practices, which are now considered dysfunctional. People also had extraordinary faith in higher powers and thought that they needed to serve them such an inspection, so they sought a remedy in religion (Divya et al. 5). People were wearing ineffective treatments religious attributes such as medals and symbols to protect against the plague. Moreover, some types of prevention were not safe because they provoked large crowds and more cases of infection. Many people gathered in large groups to listen to public sermons (Mark). There was also the opinion that the fact that the bad air caused by unburied corpses provoked the disease. Therefore, people burned the remains of the dead and used perfume. These techniques appeared more rational but not powerful enough during an epidemic.
The method of bloodletting was also used for the treatment of patients diagnosed with plague. However, this plan was dangerous and unsanitary, which endangered its practicality. Another preventative measure was wearing a mask, which was supposed to prevent odors that were thought to be the cause of the plague. The appearance of the suit consisted of a full-length coat, a mask in the form of a beak with substances with a strong smell, and other outerwear (Divya et al. 6). Unfortunately, all these rules were worthless because they had not yet been investigated. However, long-term treatment of ineffective methods has led to the spread of plague, which has led to the search for more practical remedies.
The Most Effective Prevention Methods
Quarantine was the most powerful way to prevent the spread of the plague. The first city to issue a quarantine order was the Ragusa of the Republic of Venice (modern-day Dubrovnik, Croatia). The reason for the introduction of quarantine in that place was that Ragusa was an influential port city. Then the havens had to remain open to support the economy and for the rapid delivery of goods and people transported to other areas. Therefore, in order to definitely stop the expanse of bubonic plague, the city authorities have issued a quarantine order for any vessels entering their port. Thus, all ships and people on board were inspected for signs of plague, and if they did not pass the examination, they were immediately sent to hospitals. The city also built the first hospital to fight the epidemic (Gensini et al. 257). Such a means of protection and prevention of plague was practical, given that living in a hospital paid for by the government, people could be safely treated.
Another quarantine measure was the introduction of a rule that those who come from plague-affected areas will not enter Ragusa quickly. Thus, quarantine zones were identified to prevent the spread of the plague to the vulnerable city. Fines became a means of monitoring compliance with quarantine by citizens. Ragusa was the first Mediterranean port to separate infected people and animals from a healthy population to curb the spreading plague. Similar to Ragusa, Venice was a port city and was also in the epidemic zone. Thus, the city government also introduced quarantine. All ships arriving from the affected areas had to stay in quarantine for 40 days. Also, there to build a hospital for plague patients, the facility had 200 seats and could accommodate 400 people if the epidemic grew (Divya et al. 4). At first, it was not effective; thanks to public cooperation and the entrance of such measures in other cities and countries, it became the best way to eradicate the plague.
Bubonic plague is one of the deadliest diseases that humanity has ever encountered. Therefore, during the fourteenth century, doctors and health officials knew limited about viruses or bacteria to stop the spread of the disease. However, in addition to the introduction of quarantine and restrictions on the activities of ports, even at that time, doctors tried to use preventive measures and treatment. One of the first ways was to conduct a medical examination of patients with suspected plague. If the diagnosis was confirmed, the infected were quarantined, which is 40 days of quarantine at home or in the hospital (Divya et al. 7). The choice of the number of days was determined not by medical indicators but by religious ones.
As for the treatments, there were doctors who opened plague tambourines and charred them with a hot poker. Although due to such practices, the health of the experts themselves was under threat. Aromatic herbs and precious stones were also possible medicines. Considering the plague was poison, they tried to treat it with antidotes available at the time. In particular, dried frogs and lizards were applied to the tambourines, which could remove the poison from the blood, and for the same purpose used precious stones, which were crushed into powder and sprinkled on wounds (Cawthorne 168). Thus, quarantine restricted the rapid spread of the disease, but the number of deaths was growing. This can be explained by rich people fleeing the cities where the plague prevailed, and the needy had to stay. The poor lived in unsanitary conditions, which provoked further outbreaks of plague. Therefore, another measure to overcome the epidemic was to scrub the streets of rats and waste.
The plague became a real challenge for the society of that time. The pandemic showed the need for the development of medicine and sanitation. Thus, later the incidence decreased because people followed the established rules and became more careful. Therefore, compliance with quarantine, street cleaning, and burial of dead bodies prevented the development of an even greater epidemic. At the same time, doctors tried to find drugs that would help already infected patients. The least effective methods were those based on religious beliefs. Therefore, their use only led to the spread of the epidemic, but the government’s timely intervention and conscious people helped to overcome the disease.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Translated by Payne, John. Produced by Ted Garvin, and Linda Cantoni, 2007.
Cawthorne, Nige. The Curious Cures Of Old England: Eccentric Treatments, Outlandish Remedies and Fearsome Surgeries for Ailments from the Plague to the Pox. Hachette UK, 2018.
Divya, Ananth, et al. The Role of Social Classes and Culture in Effectiveness of Various Methods of Plague Prevention during the Bubonic Plague. East Brunswick, United States, 2020.
Gensini, Gian Franco, et al. ‘The Concept of Quarantine in History: from Plague to SARS.’ The National Center for Biotechnology Information, vol. 49, no. 4, 2012, pp. 257–261.
Mark, Joshua. Religious Responses to the Black Death. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2020.