a century in review: medicine coming out of the dark ages published by: Averi Klein, & Cassidy Eckman

For several centuries, following the fall of Rome, our people have lived in society’s ruins. At the dawn of this century it was hoped we were nearing the end of such dismal existence, and for awhile, I'm told, such was the case. Most records of what follows have been lost, or perhaps they were never made, as it seemed even the most prestigious struggled to stay uncorrupted. What remains, however, are horrific firsthand accounts of what I do believe ought to be described as a plague of death itself. It was an illness of the very air we breathe, vapors so corrupted even those without sin fell ill. In those days many believed that science and medicine had failed them, and so they turned to faith for their salvation. At risk of incurring the church’s wrath, I suggest to you now that may have been an error. The disease faced may have been beyond the reach of medicine, yet science had not entirely failed. I lay forth this exposition so that you may understand how a chronicle of this past century has come to focus so heavily on the central decade. This record is not without mention of events unrelated to the plague, however as no recent story looms so large, it became difficult to give it minimal coverage.

General photo: priests attempted to bring salvation to the ill, and, in the early days of the plague, came to give last rights to those dying.

medical advancements

invention of quarantine

Many of the most dramatic responses to the plague came out of Italy. The most humane of which being the advent of the quarantine in the year of our lord 1377. Doctors began separating patients and their family members from the general populace. In extreme cases cities began to lock the possibly infected in their homes to be burned with the lodging, however such a practice is more barbaric than medically advanced. As such the focus of the piece is the system of 30 days of separation for the infected. Most of the infected died within several days of their first symptoms, but those that survived were to remain isolated until the duration of the month. Although this procedure did not spare any cities, it did result in many areas losing far smaller percentages of their people. The region surrounding Milan is a great example of this. Infected cities across Europe lost as much as 70% of their population. Milan, in contrast, lost less than a third of its people. Since the first use, this method has been adapted across much of Europe. I do now think it's fair to say that subsequent outbreaks of the Bubonic plague have had lesser consequences due to use of quarantines.

In the middle of this past century, an inventive, if not entirely successful treatment was created. Infections such as syphilis as well as kidney stones are prevalent, and many patients present with blockage of the urethra. Until several decades ago, nothing could be done in these cases. The first metal catheters were painful and dangerous, with many possible complications. In some cases, however, the patient was saved by this device. Over the second half the fourteenth century changes have been made to both the device and its methods of use. In a time of struggling for medical innovation such an invention is a necessary reminder that terrestrial solutions can still prevail. It is to be assumed improvements on this device will continue to be made in the coming years, and that many more patients can be saved.

Medical advancement (quarantine): Italian doctors hope to shield the healthy from the ill in the first recorded effort at a quarantine.

invention of glasses

Out next story comes from and invention made just before the turn of the century, but one that was not popularized until the year of our lord 1301. The use of lenses for scientific purposes is new feat, however, creating lenses to correct vision is a different matter entirely. 14 years prior to the turn of the century the first attempt at corrective lenses was made. After a decade and a half of fine tuning, spectacles began being sold to the visually impaired. Over the last century medical professionals have been able to temper lenses to the specific visual needs of patients, allowing scientists, authors, and artists to continue their work for many years longer. Corrective lenses have served not only as a medical treatment, but as a way of allowing the brilliant minds of our time many years more to share with the world their gifts. It must not be forgotten in times of hardship that ingenuity still prevails.

Medical success story: in the first artistic representation of the use of glasses, Tommaso de Modina paints Cardinal Hugh of Provence at work.

questionable medical practices

When doctors began to realize how dangerous the plague is, nearly all of them fled its path. Those who were left were usually untrained spiritualists and hoaxers ready to take advantage of a desperate populace. Though they were paid by municipalities, many conned families out of money as well. While some attempts at curing plague victims seemed logical, more desperate measure were utterly mad. That's not to suggest plague doctors have learned from their mistakes however, as many still implemented the following strategies during recent outbreaks. Poultices were applied to buboes, the ill drank frog and herb juices laced with arsenic, and plague doctors drew blood from patients until they passed out. The infected were sometimes coated in mercury and baked for a short time on low heat and given concoctions meant to make their bodies expel fluids from every orifice. In extreme cases live chickens were strapped to buboes in an attempt to draw out the demons of infection. None of these solutions seem to help patients fight off the disease. The practice of medicine has failed us in these most dire of time

Medical failure story (at left, plague doctor):plague doctors became a common sight in infected villages. They were more often spiritualists than medical professionals, and would even recommend strapping a live chicken to infected areas.

Imagine yourself to be a young women without marriage or means of your own who has found herself to be pregnant. You are aware that if you give birth you will never be suited for marriage and will be shunned from your family. In your desperation you consider your options, and come to realize you have very few. Perhaps you go to a friend or family member who gives you a tea meant to end the pregnancy which only makes you sick. What then could you do? This is a question that faces many young women each year across Europe. Doctors and surgeons are only men, and no man is willing to help in matters such as this. The entire concept is littered with much controversy, so a young women would feel unable to ask for help. Many women in this situation seek the help of midwives. Tragically, however, a decent portion of these attempts resulted in the woman's death. I doubt this will change anytime soon as young women still have no safe place to turn.

Controversial story (abortions): as doctors refused to give abortion following a recent declaration by the church that it was sin, many young women would call upon midwifes for assistance.

religion's influences

As with many hardships, since the plague first began to break out, many Europeans blame the Jews. Much of the Christian populace believes that the presence of Jews in their towns incurred God’s wrath. Over the last half century towns have forced their Jewish populations to leave or be burned at the stake. Doctors refuse to help Jewish people, and being forced to wander through infected villages in search of sheltering increases their chance of dying by the plague. Those that are exiled are luckier, however, as being burned alive is the alternative. The lives of Jews among Christian dominated areas have always been tumultuous, and this is often made worse in times of hardship. Many Jewish people have now fled to Poland seeking refuge. It can be argued that the generosity of the polish people has been rewarded. Since they welcomed the Jews in, Poland has experienced lower death rates than surrounding areas.

Marginalized peoples (Jews): in many areas of Europe people blamed Jews for bringing the evil spirits of the plague with them. Jews were cast out or burned in many villages.

Spiritual leadership in times of suffering

Born as Pierre Roger in France, pope Clement the 6th’s 10 year reign included several major issues. Pierre was born in the year of our lord 1291 into a lord’s household, and he entered the Benedictine order at the age of 10. After 6 years at the abbey, the young man went to college in Paris. He became a prior and continued to study theology and law for 16 years. In the year of our lord 1323 Pierre was given a doctorate and license to teach. After publishing a treatise defending pope John the 22nd, the pope appointed him as prior to the Abbey of La Chaise-Dieu. He became archbishop for many years, and Pierre acted as diplomat between French and English leadership. Near the end of the year of our lord 1338 Pierre Roger was appointed a Cardinal Priest by Benedict the 12th. Four years later he moved to Avignon when elected pope. He began his reign by granting gifts to tens of thousands of clerics who came to him in need. Clement the 6th filled his cardinal cabinet with frenchmen, many of whom were his relations. Instead of living in Rome, the new pope bought the city of Avignon and built his palace there. Five years into Clement the 6th’s reign, Europe was devastated by the Black Death sweeping across the eastern hemisphere. He originally declared the Black Death to be divine wrath, however he continued to consult with astronomers and doctors seeking other causes. He isolated himself in his Avignon palace, and managed to evade the plague. He consecrated Rhine River and absolved all who died during the plague of their sins so the people of Europe wouldn't fear being sent to hell if unable to reach priests and cemeteries. These declarations went far to calm the public. He later denounced the flagellants and denounced all who blamed the Jews for the disease, likely saving thousands of lives. In the last few years of his papacy, Clement the 6th helped to stabilize many of Europe's monarchies and governments. In the year of our lord 1352 pope Clement the 6th passed away naturally in Avignon.

Autobiographical story (pope clement 6): though he is most famous for avoidance of the plague, the decrees he issued during this tumultuous time served well to keep some level of calm among the people.

Advice column:

Q: Hello, I am writing you today as a young woman expecting a child next month. It will be the first for my husband and I. I was hoping for a few tips when it comes to taking care of a child. Should I go them when they cry? If so, how often? How long can I expect to sleep each night? And do you think a child will help or hurt my relationship? Thank you.

A: Well I should think you needn't worry about any of that, miss. In fact I doubt you'll be worrying about child care at all. It is generally rather likely that you and/or your child will not survive the birth. Farewell.

Q: Good day. My letter today concerns my neighbors. I've noticed that the family next door has been exhibiting symptoms of the Black Death lately and I'm concerned for them and for my family. Should I report them to my village’s priest? I appreciate your time. God be with you.

A: Thank you for writing in to us. To protect your family from the deadly contagion of plague vapors, there is only one solution; you must wait until the entire family is inside, then set their home ablaze. Burning the infected is the only way to control contagion. Best of luck.

comic strip

medical physicians of the 1300s

The hierarchy of physicians has established itself well over the last century. Each group has its own specific role in the maintenance of the people's’ health. In the lowest social tier are the village wise-women, who serve as local pharmacists and midwives. They are knowledgeable in herbs and general technique, as well as rituals and superstitions. Despite having arguably the most important role in day to day care, their gender leaves them in a low position socially. The next step up is that of barbers. Their work is no way limited to the maintenance of hair, however. Barbers dabble in dentistry and small surgical operations when no other physicians are in the area. As the first aid technicians, barbers learned through apprenticeship and were expected to join the regulatory guild, which formed in London at the dawn of the century. The more formal position for this sort of work is the surgeon. Though nowhere near as certified as a doctor, surgeons do most of the actual practice of medicine. Surgeons are more akin to craftsmen, as many still learn through apprenticeships, but more and more universities offer courses in the subject. Surgery is more of a physical than intellectual craft, so few surgeons are tied to the church. The highest intellectual and social tier is held by doctors. This position is more closely tied to the church and requires clinical training. Many universities began requiring doctors to witness and take part in dissection before being licensed in the middle of this last century. This is not to suggest, however, that physicians aren't equally schooled in superstition. Religious beliefs are still vastly important to all facets of medicine.


Created with images by bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4" • bittbox - "Grungy Paper 4"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.