A medieval guide against epidemics

As the viral crisis deepens, it feels inappropriate to broach any other topic then the epidemic, seriously or in jest. We’ve learned a lot from the past, and the present holds lessons that we might hope to learn in the years to come. The 14th century may not have a lot to teach us in the way of preventing a national pandemic, but it has the benefit of fumigation: bringing a nice aroma into the room without killing the pathogens. Here’s my rant and my aroma:

  1. It’s the air, stupid! Whatever the pestilence might be and wherever it may strike, the biggest problem is contagion. And that is because the disease is in the air. At the moment, nearly everything is in the air – except perhaps the airplanes. For the medieval naturalist, the mortiferous disease causes the air to become corrupt and thus enables its transmission from one person to another. Contagion was recognised pretty quickly by those who tried to understand the plagues striking European lands in the Middle Ages.
  2. Hygiene is everything. When self-isolation doesn’t work, fleeing the hotbeds of infection may be the best option. In any case, one has to take decisive action. Fumigation is purifying. One 14th-century advice reads: “Therefore let your house be clean and make clear fire of wood flaming. Let your house be made with fumigation of herbs, that is to say with leaves of bay tree, juniper, wormwood, rue, mugwort and of the wood of aloes which is best but it is dear. Such a fume taken by the mouth and ears opens the inward parts of the body.”
  3. Monocausality fails. Although many tried to explain epidemics through a single cause, the thinkers in the medieval West came up with a large number of possible causes. Many such causes were religious, some scientific, while others were man-made: engineered diseases, the imperfect equivalent of our designer bugs and synthetic virology. In the latter category fall, to our old continent’s endless shame, those who blamed the Jews for poisoning the water or food supply.
  4. Lifestyle changes are inevitable. You can’t go living like nothing has happened, wherever you may find yourself on the social and economic ladder. The impact of an epidemic is universal, whether we’re dealing with an agricultural or post-industrial, globalised society. Everyone depends on everyone, and to run away is just to be oblivious to the common good, which belongs to everyone. However, if you must run away, do it in style, like Boccaccio’s unhappy crew.
  5. Hellfire for swindlers and exploiters.

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