Medieval Europe saw the growth of many towns and cities are urban centres came into being and prospered. This led to the concentration of huge populations at such urban centres and in time, led to the rise of many diseases.
The lack of proper planning and hygiene in many urban cities further instigated the spread of diseases such as boils, dysentery, smallpox, measles and typhus.
Diseases such as the plague also struck Europe a number of times during the middle ages, causing significant depopulation especially in major towns and cities.
Although the cures for most of these diseases were available during the medieval period, many of them were not effective or came with significant risks. In many cases, diseases were also attributed to supernatural phenomenon.
Leprosy is a transmittable disease that leads to the formation of wounds all over the body and eventually results in the withering of organs. The disease was particularly common among poor people during the medieval period.
It came to be transmitted widely among the poor living in cramped conditions. Leprosy was typically transmittable due to close contact over long periods, from one family member to another for instance. The disease took some 6 to 10 years to fully affect a victim and leprosy victims, in the absence of an effective treatment during medieval period, were often banished from among the populace.
Plague was one of the deadliest epidemics to hit Europe during the medieval period. The first major wave of plague hit Europe in the 14th century, effectively decimating nearly one third of the entire continent’s population. The disease was transmitted from rat to humans through fleas.
It came with fatal symptoms such as boils, hallucinations and bleeding. The major type of plague was termed the Black Death as it bereft European urban centres of most of their populations. Due to the lack of any effective treatments of the disease, people generally ascribed it to supernatural causes such as divine retribution, often leading to the persecution of minorities such as the Jews.
During the medieval period, European nobles and the rich elites had better living quarters compared to the poor. This disparity was especially pronounced in major urban centres. As a result, the poor suffered many diseases which were directly a result of cramped living quarters and an acute lack of hygiene.
This directly led to the rise of skin diseases among the poor. The poor would wear wool clothing which were often infected with lice and fleas. The lack of availability of clean water also led the worsening of skin diseases. Skin diseases such as chicken pox and smallpox would spread rapidly within a population and frequently, from one town to the other. Although most skin diseases would go away in time, some serious cases resulted in deaths due to the lack of suitable cures.
Another notable medieval disease was typhoid which, as was the case with most other diseases, often plagued the poor. This disease came with serious symptoms such as severe abdominal pains and consistently high fever. Since no effective treatment was readily available to the poor, the disease worsened into late-stage symptoms which included blinding headaches and excessive exhaustion.
The Dancing Plague
The dancing plague was a curious epidemic that broke out in Germany during the late 14th century. It then spread from Germany to France, Italy and Holland as well. Victims of the disease would start dancing uncontrollably and continue dancing until severe weakness, exhaustion, dehydration or heart attacks caused their deaths. No suitable diagnosis of the cause of the disease could be made by the physicians of the time and consequently, no treatment was found. According to available historical sources, hundreds of people died of the disease during the epidemic.
Ergotism was a disease that was particularly common in rural parts neighbouring marshy regions. Of the recorded instance of the disease during the medieval period, most took place immediately after a major famine usually caused by excessively damp conditions such as heavy rains. The disease was caused by the fungal infection of grain.
When such grain was consumed, people would suffer from hallucinations, vertigo, anxiety and psychosis. It led to the gangrenous infection of the blood vessels which wrecked internal damage on body organs. Nearly 40% of those afflicted by ergotism died while those who would switch to healthier grain soon after affliction would generally be saved.
A lack of hygiene during the medieval period meant that food and water were often contaminated with bacteria. This frequently resulted in the outbreak of dysentery among the population. Dysentery is a disease marked by the internal inflammation of the intestines. It usually resulted in severe cases of diarrhoea leading the victims to lost water and important salts from their body. If not treated timely, as was often the case with the poor, the disease resulted in dehydration and death.
Influenza and Cough
Although effective remedies for both influenza and cough are readily available today, this was not the case during the medieval period. People would suffer from chest and throat infections, and incur diseases such as influenza and cough. Due to their rapid transmission, these diseases quickly spread in vast portions of medieval populations. A lack of standard treatment for the victims also meant that many of them suffered death while some were able to recover using home remedies.
Scurvy was another notable disease that plagued the poor during the medieval period. The disease was a direct result of a severe deficiency of Vitamin C. Since Vitamin C is most readily available in fruits, and the poor could not afford fruits, they suffered from Vitamin deficiency and incurred scurvy. The disease led to softening of the gums and the loss of teeth.
Cholera was a notable disease during the medieval period and its outbreaks were directly linked with the lack of adequate sanitary conditions. The symptoms of cholera include severe diarrhea leading to quick dehydration, weakness, muscle cramps and death within a short time of infection. Due to a lack of understanding of the disease, medieval attempts at curing cholera including abstention of raw fruits and vegetables, a cure which didn’t help the victims.