Friday, May 15, 2015

Medieval Diseases Gonna Kill You, Sukkah!

It's been a while since I've blogged, but I'm back with a really killer one --this post could actually kill you.  Dead.  Forever.  Unless you believe in the resurrection of the dead or the slightly greater likelihood of  becoming a zombie.  In that case, your death will be a mere temporary setback to your long-term goals of eternal life or dining on brains or whatever else strikes your fancy.  What I'm referring to that pale rider of the apocalypse: disease --medieval diseases in particular.

Hold still... I'm lancing and draining this last
punishment sent to you from God 
Now I know what you're thinking.  You're all like, "Geesh, Ex-Proff, doctors were really dumb back in medieval times.  Our doctors today are way smarter.  And we've got medicine and machines they didn't have back in the medieval day, so we're safe.  And besides, we've got immunity from all those nasty medieval diseases --they'd only give us the sniffles today."
To that, I say, "`Du bist aetrennesse of cw'ead" --for a translation of this, wake up the medieval linguist at the next History-Engineering Department faculty mixer.

Me?!?  But I soooo cute!!!
Let's start out with the really nasty one: Black Death.  Firstly, recent scholarship has cast doubt on the role of the black rat in spreading the disease back in the 1300's.  The way I learned it (and taught it for my entire career up until now) was that the basilicus virus which caused bubonic plague, was carried by the fleas which infested the black rat, which infested medieval Europe, which then jumped off (the fleas) of the rats, bit people, and killed one third of Europe's population during successive outbreaks. However according to Dr. Nils Christian Stenseth of the University of Oslo. Black Death was probably carried by the fleas on the Mongolian mouse, a.k.a. The Gerbil.

You see, according to Dr. Stenseth --who, by the way has made a career of studying tree rings from wicked-old trees in order to figure out what the weather was like in the distant past --the weather at about the time of the first major outbreaks of European bubonic plague featured especially crappy weather for rats.  What this means is that bunches of rats probably died, and the ones who survived stayed nice and warm in their little hidey-holes and weren't out sharing their fleas with people. However, the weather for those plague years were especially good for gerbils.  Who had their own fleas.  Which also carried the basilicus virus.  Play with the nice gerbil?  Boom -you done.

No, you did not see this during the Black Plague. Keep reading.
But hang on, Ex-Proff: isn't Black Plague gone these days?  Nope. 5-15 people catch it each year IN  THE  UNITED  STATES!!!  There was also a particularly bad outbreak in Madagascar in 2014.  And while it is true that there are antibiotics and a vaccine to deal with plague today, there is always the danger that the virus could evolve into a drug-resistant strain or mutate into one that is  even more deadly than the one that killed everybody in the 1300's.

Now, onto lesser medieval diseases.  Contrary to popular opinions, medieval doctors weren't the complete quacks history likes to think they were.  They were really good at setting broken limbs (all those knights to practice on) and were particularly good herbologists.  Their main problem was that they just didn't have the right medical theory --that disease came from tiny, microscopic bacterium and even tinier, electron microscopic viruses, because the microscope and electron microscope had yet to be invented.  But being educated (for their day) professionals carrying on the good work of Hippocrates, they did what medical professionals do today when faced with a real head-scratcher: they make shit up and then totally pulled answers right out of their butts.  Case in point: the unsightly King's Evil.
Woah dude, I am totally scrofulated!

This nasty little disease gave its sufferers black, painless masses growing all over their neck, looking for all the world like somebody (a king?) had beaten the unfortunate victim with the proverbial ugly stick and then gave 'em one more for bitching about it.  The cure was really weird: the touch of a real, properly anointed king.  It worked so well that King Henry IV of France reportedly cured 1,500 sufferers during his reign.  Just think of how many he could have cured if he had his own infomercial!

We know this disease today as scrofula (kinda sounds like a So-Cal surfer describing some tasty waves off of Huntington, dude!) and it is a kind of tuberculosis.  Regular tb affects the lungs, but this little beauty affects the lymph nodes, the existence of which medieval doctors knew, but had no idea of what they did.  This is because the medical establishment of the day had another misconception about disease that sounds a bit Chinese if you think about it.  They believed that health and sickness were dependant on the balance of the four bodily fluids, or "humors."

The four humors in question were blood, phlegm, bile and black bile.  This is why a common medieval treatment regimen often included the practice of leeching or bleeding the patient.  Too much blood?  Just slap on a few leeches and bleed him for a while.  That'll restore balance to the patient's humors (balance the Tao with the Chi?) and the patient will be upright soon enough, wielding his sword, fighting his enemies, oppressing the peasantry, good as new.  This practice continued up to and including (and once again, I am SO not making this up!) the physicians who treated George Washington on his deathbed.

Leeches are a remnant of the industrial bourgeoisie,
sucking the blood of the industrial proletariat
Of course, we know now that bleeding a person just makes them weaker and less able to fight infections (white cells as well as red cells get gobbled up by those leeches), so it's not a very good remedy.  Which is why I was so surprised to see a jar of leeches in a DENTIST'S OFFICE in the Soviet union in 1984!  I was on one of those Cold War student exchanges and our Intourist guide wanted us to see how great Soviet health care was, so we were ushered into this shiny, spotless, brand new dental surgery that had all the latest gadgets (and no dentists or patients, at least while we were
there!), and at least one medieval throwback in an EFFING JAR OF LEECHES!

But I digress.  the next medieval nasty on the list is the ever disgusting St. Anthony's Fire.

"I'm too sexy for my cloak, too sexy- who the fuck am I kidding?"
In 945, the good people of Paris were afflicted with these strange, painful (firey!) sores which covered their bodies.  They all came down with it pretty much at the same time, and for some reason St. Anthony was involved (one of the first victims must have misplaced his keys or something), so the sufferers did what came natural to them: they all hobbled down to St. Mary's Church (this was pre-Notre Dame Paris) and cried out for a cure.  Enter Duke Hugh the Great, Count of Paris.  Not only was he a noble, and in charge of Paris (which wasn't quite as big a deal back then as it would be today), but he also had at his disposal a huge (see what I did there?  Hugh, huge?) granary full of Holy Grain (what made it holy has never been fully explained, but I suspect more involvement by a certain Saint Anthony.)  Duke Hugh then set all the bakers to work, grinding the grain, firing up the ovens, and producing a seemingly endless supply of baguettes, boules, brioche, French toast, croutons, pain complete --you name it, they baked it.  And guess what?  After a while, the people were cured!  Hooray!  They were so happy that they gave Duke Hugh a rousing three cheers, then stuck him with the bill and returned home.  Where they promptly came down with St. Anthony's Fire.  Again.  And guess who just so happened to be fresh out of Holy Grain?

I'll take 1/2 dozen Holy Rolls, please.
You see, the problem wasn't St. Anthony at all.  The problem was that the Parisians' granaries were infested with this nasty fungus called Ergot, a little gem that flourishes in damp, cold environments and attaches itself to rye grain.  Duke Hugh's grain didn't have any problem with Ergot fungus because his granary was dry and not quite as cold (it must have been built with a nice southern exposure), so nobody got sick from eating it.  

And if you think that Ergot poisoning is a thing of the past, think again: in 1951, the last recorded outbreak of it occurred in Provence at the village of Pont St. Espirit, where an unethical farmer sold contaminated rye to an equally unethical miller, who mixed it in with a batch of wheat flour and thus condemned his fellow villagers to the fun symptoms of St. Anthony's Fire.  And one more thing: Ergot poisoning can manifest itself as gangrenous (the type the St. Anthony's Fire sufferers had), convulsive, or hallucinogenic.  That's right, this fungus was the medieval equivalent of Magic Mushrooms and may have had a hand in the witchcraft craze of the 15-1600's (-people convulsing with pain caused by unseen attackers?  -sightings of the devil dancing with your naked neighbors?  Sound familiar?)  And one more final thing: LSD is nothing more than synthetic hallucinogenic Ergot of Rye.

Tune-in, turn-on, and drop-out.  Oh, and try the rye toast!
The last and final medieval disease that could totally kill you and make you a total outcast from society at the same time is a doozy.  I was thinking of leprosy, but that one's been around ever since people had skin, so instead I choose the dreaded Dancing Disease of 1518.  Ok ok, 1518 is a little late for the Middle Ages, but hey, all this medieval/Renaissance/Age of Enlightenment crap are just arbitrary names assigned to clumps of time that vary according to the needs of the historian.  Or blogger, in this case.

Victims of the Dancing Disease, well, danced. A lot.  All the time.  Without stopping to pee or powder their noses.  Some of them danced until they died of heart attacks or exhaustion.  All the usual cures were tried: bleeding, herbs, dancing these poor bastards down to some shrine where they only kept dancing; all to no avail.  The weird thing about this disease is there had not been any prior outbreaks, nor have there been any since.  And it wasn't the "dancing mania" that killed its victims, it was the attendant exhaustion/heart attacks that did them in.  Which leads many in the historical/medical community to believe that the "disease" was kind of like a localized sociological mania, a "fad gone bad" that may have been responsible.

Or it could have been the first ever rave.  Ok, so it was kind of a lame rave...
So, there you have it.  With all the disease of medieval times, it seems amazing that there was anybody left at all to have a Renaissance, let alone a Reformation or an Age of Enlightenment, just to name a few.  Good thing they did, or we might not be here today.  So be careful: eat a balanced diet, wash your hands frequently, and just in case, keep a saint's relic nearby because you never know when medieval disease is gonna get you, sukkah!

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