Medical Writing Named The Plague Tract Created As A Result Of The Black Death

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A new form of medical writing named the plague tract was created as a result of the Black Death. One of the most renowned plague tracts written in October 1348 was the Paris Consilium, also known as the Report of the Paris Medical Faculty. Forty-nine medical experts from the college of the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris were asked by King Phillip VI of France to research and determine a cause, a cure, and a reason behind the plague’s quick infection rate. Their research and report determined the explanations of the pestilence were far deeper than human’s level of understanding; however, the report did offer a couple of potential reasons. Fourteenth century ideas about medicine were focused on the theories of ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and the Roman physician Galen. The Report of the Paris Medical Faculty therefore included the most current and informed scientific information accessible in 1348 and promptly developed into a reliable and authoritative piece of work. This is evident through its continuous reference in other work on plague. Medieval scholars believed the plague was caused by astrological reasons such as planet alignments and corrupted air and humoral imbalances. The section of the source to be analysed here does not refer to astrological reasons therefore this source analysis will focus primarily on the corruption of air and imbalances of the four humours.

The source was written at the time of the Black Death’s peak in Europe meaning it is a highly significant primary source for later historians in understanding how medicine and disease was understood at the time of the Black Death. Paris was the home of one of the great theological schools of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and as such was a dominant university in Europe. The source was written with the purpose of creating an understanding of what plague was, why and how it was spreading so quickly across Europe and how to cure it. As the source was commissioned by King Phillip VI of France, it suggests that the details within the report were available to and meant for those of a higher class who could perhaps afford top university-trained surgeons and physicians.

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Medical theory during the time of the Black Death was centred around the theory of humour. Humoral theory was established around the idea of four earthly elements: fire, water, earth, and air with each of these elements relating one of the four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Each bodily fluid was believed to assume the quality of the element in which it related to. Blood was associated with air so was believed to be hot and moist, water was phlegm’s element so was believed to be moist a cold, yellow bile’s element was fire which is hot and dry and black bile was associated with earth which so was believed to be cold and dry. Each humor also correlated with a temperament, age, taste, colour, and a season of the year. Each humor being related to a season of the year is significant here as it relates to different climates and weather- a theme which runs throughout works on the plague. The link to hotter climates and temperatures proving to be a perfect breeding ground for the disease is represented in the heat and moisture associated with blood and therefore those ‘most susceptible to putrefaction’.

It was understood that when someone was sick, the four humors were out of balance. Typically, those who were sick would be advised to rest and allow the body to naturally balance out each humor, if this didn’t work the next approach was to alter a person’s diet, for example, if it was believed that the humor affected was one of the cold ones i.e. black bile or phlegm, the patient would be given something hot to eat or drink. Blood was often the most common humor to tackle when it came to attempt a cure for plague as it was the easiest humor to get to. it was also believed, as evident in the source, that blood’s element of being ‘hot and moist’ created a susceptibility to the plague. This resulted in bloodletting (by cuts or leeches) being very popular during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The six non-natural variables as noted in Greek medicine such as emotion and exercise were thought in medieval medicine to affect health. Situations that would heat or moisten the body in any way such as ‘too much exercise, sex and bathing’ were advised to be avoided. Exercise and sex increase a person’s inhalation rate which would result in them breathing in more corrupted air. Which, in turn would weaken the body’s defence against plague. While advice against sex has religious connotations from the idea of abstinence, this example of a ‘bad lifestyle’ can also show historians that physical contact was not recommended, therefore displaying some form of understanding of contagion in medieval times. The idea of religion is again evident in the source through the reports detail that ‘persistent worriers’ were vulnerable to the disease. This suggests that a possible explanation for people affected by the disease were those who did not have a strong belief system or faith in God. This is reiterated by the use of the word ‘evil’ as many believed that plague was sent by Satan or the devil.

Bathing was advised against as the hot water would have opened the pores meaning the corrupted air would be able to penetrate through the skin. Moreover, due to economic reasons many would have had to share water with their own family, or in some cases use public baths in which the water could be contaminated. The advice int his report here shows that the medical professions as the time had a degree of understanding of contagion, and therefore used this knowledge to further develop their medical awareness. However, it also demonstrated that their understanding was limited in regard to hygiene as keeping clean and sanitary would have resulted in less infections and perhaps less deaths. The Jewish faith, for example, had certain laws about hygiene. For instance, Jews were required to wash their hands numerous times throughout the day such as before eating, before leaving the bathroom and subsequent to any intimate contact. They also bathed weekly for the Sabbath. When compared to the general medieval world, any one individual could go years without ever washing their hands.

There is contrasting publications to the Report of the Paris Medical Faculty such as the chronicler Matteo Villani who described the Black Death as ‘a pestilence among men of every condition, age and sex’, this contradicts where the report states ‘babies, women and young children’ are more vulnerable and instead suggest the disease affected and killed at large and at random. Similarly, Michele da Piazza also noted that the Black Death’s mortality rate was ‘so heavy that sex and age made no difference, but everyone died alike’. It is of course understandable to a degree that women and children would perhaps be more susceptible to the plague due to being biologically weaker than their older, male counterparts however the rate at which the disease killed, there is not a significant enough trend in who died to validate this.

To conclude, the evidence and resources that are accessible and available to historians today such as the source being analysed here shows the improvement and progressed nature of medical understanding in medieval times such as their identification of the ways in which the pestilence could spread through contact. However, with the progression in knowledge being so new throughout this period it is evident that it was only truly available to those of a higher class. With the report in the source analysis being commission by King Philip VI of France, it indicates the medications and treatments offered were intended for royal use only.


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