There have always been epidemics and pandemics, and with them have come creative – and often weird – ways to deal with them. We look back over some of the methods people throughout history have used to ward off a plague – whether they worked or not.
Warning: Don’t try any of these for Covid-19.
Epidemics are the great equaliser. While, of course, many socio-ecomic factors affect who falls victim to any given illness, they usually don’t discriminate, and throughout history plagues and pestilences have claimed the lives of princes and peasants alike.
Way back in Medieval times, the causes of most diseases were only barely understood – if at all – and this lead to a whole host of weird ways to cure or prevent them. From prayer to “plague water”, these crazy folks tried everything, to varying degrees of success.
According to History Extra, because so many illnesses had the potential to be fatal, emphasis was placed on prevention – staying healthy by living a balanced life. “When sickness did occur, attention to food and drink, exercise and other kinds of activity, as well as one’s emotions, could bring about recovery”.
While that makes a lot of sense even to us now, things get a little stranger from there. According to a 15th-century English medical text, “a man who was spitting blood should “beware of anger, and being with women, … and sour foods, and salty ones, and sharp ones, and of hard work, and of much thinking”.
The fact that they were instructed not to think much may actually be one reason these preventative measures and remedies are as odd as they are. Let’s take a dive into some of the specifics about some of the more interesting ways people chose to ward off some of the particularly nasty illnesses.
Sweet smells… or farts
Early on, people realised that disease could be spread through the air, but before the discovery of germ theory, they had a few less-than-accurate notions about how they did so. They believed that illness spread through corrupt or poisoned air, which could enter the body via the lungs or through pores in the skin. This air, dubbed “miasma”, was thought to be foul smelling, and could therefore be not only easily identified, but counteracted by pleasant smells.
Scents such as rose and sandalwood were often employed to fight this noxious air – but as we know now, burning some incense isn’t going to help too much when it comes to eliminating airborne virus particles. This theory did have some positive outcomes, though. It encouraged governments and municipalities to employ better public health measures to deal with foul-smelling waste – and I think we’re all glad about that.
In her book Toliette, Perfumes and Make-Up at the Medici Court, Valentina Fornaciai explains that “People relied on various scented items to fight the contaminated air: they hung little bottles of perfume on their belts, they put little bags full of scents between scented clothes, they wore jewels and other accessories made of perfumed paste and they even sprinkled their hands and arms with vinegar. Scented sponges and balls became a part of people’s typical defences when they went out. “
It wasn’t only good smells that worked either. Particularly strong ones, according to Kieth Johnston, worked just fine. This could include “vinegar, powerful spices, and even one’s own flatus—or, “prat whids”—which could be stored in jars, were common defences against infection”.
Fornaciai writes that vinegar was “‘splashed’ out of specifically made containers on hot summer days when the miasma from urban waste and the dreadful bodily odour from people became unbearable”.
Like victims of the bubonic plague, toads have bumps on their skin, and for some reason that seemed to make them appealing as an antidote. Dried toads would be laid out on the plague buboes and then left to do their magic.
One can only hope that this remedy had a more positive impact on the plague patient than it did on the toad, but the jury is out here.
Tobacco and alcohol were both considered effective ways to keep healthy.
A 1722 health guide claims that “No One thing is so generally Approved of and Recommended by Physicians to prevent and keep off the PLAGUE or any other Infectious Distemper, as is the SMOKING of Tobacco,” and according to Thomas Willis in 1691, “Wine and Confidence are a good Preservative against the Plague”.
( we all know that one guy who’s a little too full of “wine and confidence” at any given time, and who, presumably, would have been immune to the Plague as a result).
The logic to the latter was that liquids were thought to absorb some of the toxicity in the air, and that drinking liquids that hadn’t been “fortified” could make you ill. While we all agree that hydration is important, we now know that limiting yourself to drinking alcoholic beverages may not be the best way to go about it.
And speaking of unappealing beverages…
Drinking your own urine
“Forget about an apple a day,” Johnston writes, “officials in Venice actually recommended citizens drink their own urine each morning to rid the city of plague in the 16th century”.
Mix a cocktail
Considered medicine, rather than a pleasant beverage, weird brews – which sound more like magic potions or poisons than anything else – were thought to help cure those who had fallen ill. Other mixtures could be sprayed onto clothing or worn as protective amulets. Fornaciai writes of a few…well…interesting recipes that were used. They all look something like this:
“Take purified mercury 5 pounds 6 ounces, common salt 1 pound 4 ounces. Green copper 2 pounds 8 ounces. Hungarian vitriol 1 pound 4 ounces. Grind together and put in a new iron pan and fill with blacksmith’s water and bring slowly to the boil, stirring with a wooden spatula, and everything will bind together to form a metallic paste. Make medals which will become hard in the open air and wear them around the neck, they are good for warding off the plague.“
At least you don’t have to drink that one.
We understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, but even in the midst of a pandemic there are things we should avoid doing – drinking bleach for instance ( no matter which political leaders floats it as a theory) – unless its firmly backed by science.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the time of dried frogs and urine as a remedy when it comes to warding off plagues and diseases, so for now, we continue to wear our masks and avoid contact with each other whenever possible.