Diseases were very common throughout the Medieval Period mainly due to lack of proper diet and poor hygiene. Some of the most common diseases were dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever, chicken pox, measles and black plague to name a few.
People mostly caught diseases because they had very small houses and had to sleep in rooms with sheep, cows and horses. These animals were common source of fleas and hence diseases as poor people couldn’t afford to take a bath and wash their clothes more frequently. The black death of the 14th century in which millions of people died was caused by oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that bit medieval people. White rodents also moved freely from house to house carrying diseases with them.
Medieval diseases could be broadly divided into Diseases caused by poor hygiene, Diseases caused by poor diets, Infectious diseases, Leprosy and Black Death
Skin diseases were mostly caused by poor hygiene and were common among the poor peasants and townspeople. Lice, bedbugs, fleas and other insects lived in the rough wool clothing that they wore. These insects irritated their skin and caused infection. People had to bring water from nearby wells or rivers in order to take a bath. They found it very difficult and used to take a bath only once a week or less.
Survey was caused by the shortage of Vitamin C intake due to poor diets. Scurvy made gums spongy and loosened the teeth. As people were poor so they couldn’t afford fresh fruits that was the source of vitamin C
People suffered from the serious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera and diarrhea mainly due to dirty water and foods infected by bacteria. People thought these diseases were caused by eating raw fruits and vegetables, whereas it wasn’t the case. People used to vomit after having stomach viruses and food poisonings.
Many Medieval Diseases spread due to human to human interaction as viruses spread. Skin diseases like measles, small pox and chicken pox caused scarring of skin, blisters, high fevers and in some cases deaths.
Due to viruses, Medieval People suffered from severe throat and chest infections with diseases such as diphtheria, influenza and whooping cough. These diseases spread quickly from town to town in a very short period of time and killed many people.
Among Medieval diseases Leprosy was one of the most threatening. Leprosy had a direct impact on a person’s skin, eyes, nerves and breathing. People suffering from leprosy could lose their fingers, toes and even the tips of their noses. There were separate houses called “leproseries” for the sick as it was thought that leprosy was a contagious disease. People with leprosy were separated from their families and had to live their lives in seclusion. Lepers had special dresses for public appearing in order to warn people that they were coming and also rattled their clappers or bells. It was the church’s responsibility to take care of such people.
Among the medieval diseases the Black Death or the black plague was the deadliest. From 1346 until 1353 AD around 75 to 200 million people died of this disease. It was estimated that this disease had killed 1 in 4 people. It is believed that Black Death came to Europe on 12 trading ships that sailed from central Asia. These ships docked on the Italian seaports had sick and dead people onboard them. Although locals succeeded in sending the ships away, but it was already too late as most of the people had caught the disease. The infected people, then unwillingly spread the disease as they travelled from town to town. The black plagues consisted of three types of plagues i.e. bubonic, septicemic and pneumonia. Some people thought that these plagues were from God in order to punish them for their sins. These people arranged religious processions for forgiveness.
The worst medieval diseases were the leprosy and the black death. Although with leprosy people suffered a lot and it caused organ withering and wound formation but had no comparison with the Black Death that took lives of the millions of the people. Leprosy spread through the nasal secretions of patients and with long physical contact whereas the black plague was an endemic that spread like wild fire.
The Bubonic plague was the main plague of the three plagues that caused the Black Death. It was caused by the bacteria “Yersinia pestis” that transferred to a human through an infected flea bite. When bacteria entered into a person’s lymphatic system, it developed buboes, the painful bumps, under the armpits, groin or on the neck. With these bumps they also got fevers and headaches. The only way a person could survive was if the bumps broke open, spilling out the poisonous bacteria. If the bump did not open the people died within three days of first bump.
Medieval diseases were mainly cured by balancing the four humors – mucus, blood, black bile and yellow bile. As there was no major development in the field of medicine during medieval times hence most diseases were cured by herbs and plants. The ancient doctrine of analogy was applied and it was thought that to treat heart diseases heart shaped leaves were good, for kidney diseases kidney shaped leaves were used. In order to treat eye diseases, flowers resembling the eye’s shape were used. Leprosy was mainly treated by sending the patients to separate houses and keeping them away from healthy people. For treatment of the plague a herb called “plague root” was used. Plague root’s leaves were wrapped around the infected areas and the roots were boiled in wine and given to patients for eating.
During the Medieval Period, due to poor hygienic conditions and poor food intake people suffered from a lot of diseases, but the major diseases were leprosy and the black plague. In the fourteenth century plague caused millions of deaths as proper treatment was not available. Treatment of these diseases was mostly done through plants, herbs and traditional methods like balancing the four humors.