Symptoms and Treatment

Adrianna Bakos

Boccaccio, The Decameron

In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence (the finest city in all Italy) a most terrible plague; which (whether owing to the influence of the planet, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sines) had broke out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the West…began to show itself in a sad and wonderful manner; and, different to what it had been in the East (where bleeding from the nose was the fatal prognostic) here there appeared certain tumours in the groin, or under the armpits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; and in some cases large and but few in number, in others less and more numerous, both sorts the usual messengers of death.  To the cure of this malady neither medical knowledge, nor the power of drugs were of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, mor that the physicians (the number of whom taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently ground a true method of cure; which ever was the reason, few or none escaped; but they generally died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, without a fever or other bad circumstance attending.  And the disease by being communicated from the sick to the well, seemed daily to get ahead, and to rage the more, as fire will do, by laying on fresh combustibles.  Nor was it given by conversion with only, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or any thing that they had before touched….Such, I say was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but what is more strange, and has been often known, that any thing belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect, and even kill that creature in a short space of time: And one instance of this kind, I took particular notice of; namely, that the rags of a poor man just dead, being thrown into the street, and two hogs coming by at the same time, and rooting amongst them, and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour turned around and died on the spot.

Guy de Chauliac, Chirurgia Magna

Therefore the said mortality began for us [in Avignon] in the month of January [1348], and lasted seven months. And it took two forms: the first lasted two months, accompanied by continuous fever and a spitting up of blood, and one died within three days. The second lasted the rest of the time, also accompanied by continuous fever and by apostemes [tumors] and antraci [carbuncles] on the external parts, principally under the armpits and in the groin, and one died within five days. And the mortality was so contagious, especially in those who were spitting up blood, that not only did one get it from another by living together, but also by looking at each other, to the point that people died without servants and were buried without priests…. For a cure, there are phlebotomies and purgatives [probably vomit inducing substances or laxatives] and electuaries and syrupy cordials.  And the external apostemes were ripened with figs and onions that were cooked and ground up and mixed with leavened bread dough and butter. Afterwards the apostemes would open and they were healed with a treatment for ulcers. The antraci [carbuncles] were ventosed [i.e., a cupping-glass applied], scarified [i.e., cut open], and cauterized.  And I, in order to avoid a bad reputation, did not dare depart [from Avignon], but with a continuous fear I preserved myself as best I could with the aforesaid remedies.  Nonetheless, toward the end of the mortality, I fell into a continuous fever, with an aposteme on the groin, and I was sick for nearly six weeks. And I was in such great danger that all of my friends believed that I would die. And the aposteme ripened and healed, as I have described above, [and] I escaped by God’s command.


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Adrianna Bakos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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