Individual and Communal Medicine During the Black Death of 1347-1351
In the four years between 1347 and 1351, an outbreak of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of bubonic plague, killed between one quarter and one third of Europe’s population during a pandemic often referred to as the Black Death. Despite the swiftness with which the disease traveled, societies were not entirely helpless, for physicians had many surgical and medical procedures at their disposal to aid their patients. In this thesis I examine the types of medicine used by physicians in Christian and Muslim societies, both prior to and during outbreaks of bubonic plague. By exploring how the body and its functions were understood by medieval scholars, I attempt to explain why certain medicines were more popular than others in treating the plague, and how the popularity of a single treatment could vary across time and geographic region. I explain the diversity of the medical procedures utilized by demonstrating that there was a significant disagreement between the scholars of Muslim and Christian communities as to how the plague originated and why its effects on population were varied. I have found that the physicians in Christian Europe recorded more medicines effective in treating the plague, as well as relying less on religion, than their counterparts in Islamdom. I argue that this is because at the time of the Black Death, religious officials in the Mamluk Caliphate were trying to incorporate more religious and traditional treatments into the practice of medicine, whereas universities in Europe were actively excluding clergy and their religion from the medical fields, creating a division in religion and medicine. Despite their differences, many of the treatments recorded were utilized in both Western Europe and the Middle East. Though not always effective, such medicines were able to save many infected patients who would have died without treatment. Though not a comprehensive examination of the medicines used by physicians during the Black Death, this paper is meant to provide evidence that physicians of the Middle Ages were active practitioners of medicine with evolving theories on the body and disease, and not the superstitious quacks the modern reader often makes them out to be.