Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
—trad. English rhyme
The devastation visited upon Europe and Asia by the Black Death of 1347–51 defies the imagination: The death toll from the slaughters and genocides of the 20th C, themselves beyond the realm of the conceivable, pale in proportional comparison to the human casualty count wrought by the plague. Historical estimates vary, due to lack of reliable data, but it is generally agreed that, in Europe, the rate of fatality clocked in at somewhere between thirty and sixty percent of the total population (a decimation three to six times over). Traditional authorities—clerics, kings, and feudal lords—were at a loss for action; given the magnitude of the calamity, it is a fair bet that today’s presidents, parsons, and cable news anchors would manage no better. The Black Death was the end of the world. The Black Death was the cessation of all law, all morality, all justice. The Black Death was the Devil laughing over the corpse of Christendom. The Black Death was why every major poet and playwright down through the Nineteenth century hated, hated, hated doctors.
But just how much of this anti-medicalism was a case of “ears despising tongues for ever, which possessed them with the heaviest sound that ever yet they heard?” That is to say, was there anything about the specific practices of medieval doctors beyond their obvious failure to combat the plague that led people to have such a negative opinion of them?
For starters, the notion of a “bedside manner” was centuries away from development; in fact, a doctor’s outlandish garb (pictured below)—which included a wide-brimmed hat, a beakéd mask, thick black clothes covering all surfaces of the body, all capped by long black overcoat—was designed, in part, to be intimidating so as to better scare off the evil spirits residing in the infected bodies of the sick.
In addition to their formidable uniforms, doctors treated patients with a variety of herbal concoctions that met with different degrees of success. In general, the grab bag of potions and unguents prescribed by apothecaries—including the new and wildly popular distillation from the Orient, liquor—produced better results than the aromatic cures (posies) thought to combat the malignant odors of disease.
In summary, medical philosophy of the time was based on the Greek doctrine of the four humors as well as certain aspects of atropaic folk wisdom, so while some knowledge of medicine and surgery progressed during the era, the fundamental understanding of the human physiology did not. Despite their almost complete ineffectiveness in confronting the plague, doctors escaped the actual persecution and pogroms carried out against many Jews, gypsies, lepers, people with acne, and cats (the usual suspects). Jean de la Bruyere’s dictum—“as long as men are liable to die and are desirous to live, a physician will be made fun of, but he will be well paid”—seems to have held true, but it did no good for the general reputation of medical practitioners.
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