A well-known motto from the Middle Ages says: ‘No medicine in the garden can withstand death’, but this doesn’t mean that it has never been tried. Welcome in the garden of our Plague Museum. All the plants and trees that grow here, have been employed for personal protection against the plague at some point in time.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
Flax was cultivated for its fibres, from which linen is made. Linen was the most common fabric that was used for clothes worn by all plague workers: paramedics, disinfectors, surgeons, doctors. It was impregnated with wax, resin or glue to make it water resistent and, more importantly: the plague particles or miasma wouldn’t stick to it as easily as it would to other, rougher fabrics.
Flaxseed oil was used for ointments and making oilcloth, which was another fabric that plague workers could wear besides waxed linen.
As for any material when it comes to the plague, this differed from country to country. In Holland, the residence of our virtual museum, the garments worn by plague workers were more often made of camlet.
Common grape vine (Vitis vinifera)
Vinegar, made from wine, was used to clean face and hands with, sponges and cloths drenched in vinegar were held in front of the nose and mouth, and it was used for vaporizing rooms.
One composition for such a medicinal vinegar would be to take three pints of white vinegar, add a handful of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor.
And no doctor would advise against a moderate use of wine, pure or as a dissolvent for other components.
Tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum)
Smoking tobacco was practiced in Europe from the late 1500s on, shortly after Columbus had observed its use by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was used as a prophylaxis or cure against many diseases, especially the plague. Sometimes doctors would put a tobacco leaf between their fingers and their patient’s arm when taking their pulse.
Common rue (Ruta graveolens)
Rue species are evergreen and strongly aromatic. The leaves have been used for centuries as a spice and in traditional medicines.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Butterbur was so strongly associated with plague that it had the alternative common name of ‘Pestilence-wort’ or ‘Pestroot’ in English, ‘Pestilenzkraut’ in German.
Powder from the roots was used in medicines and added to beer and wine to lower plague fevers, smoke from the burning roots was used to drive out foul air. And the bees love its flowers.
Citrus trees (Citrus limon and Citrus aurantium)
Eating citrus fruits as well as drinking their juice have always been recommended during times of plague – again, for those who could afford it. There are many recipes for prophylactic beverages that include parts of citrus fruits, doctors chewed on candied parts or even the seeds when they visited patients. An orange spiked with cloves could function as a pomander for protection against the foul air.
It was believed that it was the popularity of lemonade (made from lemon juice, water and sugar) in Paris that the plague epidemic of 1668 made far fewer victims in that city than elsewhere. A recent theory suggests that as a result of this mania, there were so many peels everywhere that the limonene (a proven insecticide) they contained, decimated the flea population.
Juniper tree (juniperus communis)
The wood of the juniper (Juniperus communis but others as well) was used for torches and fumigations, oil (distracted from the wood and the leaves) was an ingredient for perfumes. Juniper berries were used as aromatic additives to vinegar and waxed linen. The berries, or rather the seed cones, were also taken in the mouth by doctors when they visited plague patients.
Frankincense tree (genus Boswellia)
Frankincense trees grow in Somalia, Ethiopia, and India. The resin is harvested by scraping a small opening to allow the resin to drip out and harden for some weeks. It was generally used in incense and perfumes. As so many other fragrant materials it was carried in pomanders and pouches, solved in medicinal vinegar, it was burnt and chewed upon. This chewing stimulated the saliva production, helping to get rid of excessive humors and plague particles that could have entered the mouth.
Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)
Camphor is the white crystalline substance made by distilling the bark and wood of the camphor tree. For many centuries it has been used as a component of incense and as a medicinal. It was also used in large quantities as a fumigant. As far as diversity of it’s applications goes, camphor has to be the champion still. It is used as a fragrance in cosmetics, as a flavouring food additive and as a preservative in textile; in homes it is a common insect repellent. It is an ingredient for inhalants and ointments for muscle pain relief. And modern medicines against a variety of diseases contain camphor.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
None other than Charles Delorme – the attributed inventor of the plague doctor’s costume – claimed to have taken a few cloves of garlic (together with rue, see ‘rue’) in his mouth to serve him as a tasty barricade against malignant air during the plague of Paris in 1619. It was a chief ingredient of the mythical ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’ that was believed to have saved many (or at least four) during the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720. The English were less prone to use it.
Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Well, hello there…
The unripe seed capsules of the opium poppy produce a milky latex that is dried to produce opium (and morphine, codeine and heroin).
Opium was the active ingredient of laudanum, the wonder tincture invented by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century, subsequently simplified by Thomas Sydenham a century later (he removed the leaf-gold and pearls, left the saffron, cinnamon, cloves and alcohol). Used against the plague and everything else.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
An angel appeared in a monk’s dream to reveal that Angelica could cure plague. Chewing on the bitter and sharp-tasting (and therefore sometimes candied) root or drinking an extract of it were seen as useful and affordable prevention methods. Roots were also carried around the neck as a talisman to ward off plague.
Roses (genus Rosa)
Rosewater, made by distilling the flowers, was used for cleaning almost as often as vinegar, but it smelled better. Traditionally it was imported from the Middle East, but from the arrival of the Black Death in Europe halfway the 14th century, it was produced in Europe as well. A famous rosewater was (and is still) manufactured by monks of the Santa Maria Novella monastery near Florence. Rosewater was used both to sanitise rooms and for personal care – clean water could be scarce and canal water in the cities was synonymous with sewage. It formed the liquid base of many prophylactics. Dried petals as well as essential oil filled pomanders, plagueworkers chewed on sugared petals during patient visits.
Be(e) sure not to miss the hives. Beeswax was used for candles, that doctors could hold in front of their nose when they entered a patients’ home, pure or ‘medicated’ with ingredients such as camphor or frankincense. And the wax was used in the fabricage of waxed linen, the plague worker’s textile par excellence.
Honey was an ingredient for theriac, the panacea that had been manufactured since antiquity. It could be taken orally for cure or prevention, or carried in a pouch near the heart. The chief ingredient was viper’s flesh, but this is a garden, not a zoo.
HJMattie, febr 20, 2022