A pox on all our houses

Life in the 8th century was hard. Endless labor, the constant threat of famine after too much or too little rain, the occasional Viking or Saxon raid, and of course, disease, which became ever more prevalent after malnutrition. We of the last few generations tend to forget that for virtually the entirety of human existence death came much earlier than it does today, and disease played a very large part in that. Famines did occur, and of course war, but it was disease that struck us down in droves, whether in plagues so virulent even the isolated annalists recorded them, or mere families succumbing to a stray germ. For anyone who got sick there were no antibiotics, no real understanding of anatomy, nothing but a couple of herbal books from the Greeks, and a 7th century encyclopedia to consult. And that only if you were lucky enough to find someone who could read, and possessed those volumes.

That encyclopedia is the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, who wrote it sometime before 636, when he died. Book IV is a surprisingly comprehensive and rational discussion of medicine and disease. He includes descriptions of acute and chronic illnesses, and a separate chapter for “Illnesses that appear on the surface of the body.” All told Isidore gives a reasonable description of more than eighty different maladies, before discussing various remedies, scents, and oils, and “The instruments of physicians.” It is a fascinating read, particularly to imagine oneself at the bedside of some failing soul, scouring your Isidore for some clue. Of course, you could also say that virtually all of human medical knowledge was contained within six pages of text, but let’s not quibble.1.Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.

The ancient chroniclers and writers, however, did not go into much detail on what afflicted people. Plague, pestilence, and fever were the usual culprits. Fredegar notes that in 599 “Marseilles and other cities of Provence were devastated by plague.”2.Fredegar, bk.IV, ch.18, p.12. In the same sentence, which is indicative of how closely medieval writers tied disease with supernatural events, he notes “in the same year the water of the Lake of Thun, into which flows the river Aar, became so hot that it boiled and cooked shoals of fish.” Saints’ lives usually present us with miraculous tales of healing, but to do so they first have to illustrate the misery of the supplicant.

Saint Gerard of Aurillac cured a girl of epilepsy.3.Saint Gerard, Soldiers of Christ, p.356. Saint Martin of Tours cured a girl “who was suffering from such acute paralysis that for a long time she had been altogether without use of her body. She was as good as dead in every part of her and drew only a fluttering breath.” After that Martin took on a tougher case, that of “a servant… having been entered by a demon, was dying pitiably in agonies. [Martin] ordered the man to be brought to him, but it proved impossible to get the wicked spirit out of the hut where he was, such frenzied attacks did he make with his teeth on anyone who approached.”4.Saint Martin, Soldiers of Christ, pp.18-20. Saint Willibald’s biographer gave some clinical details to enhance the miracle cure of two brothers who “were struck down with sickness. They found it difficult to breathe, fever set in, and at one moment they were shivering with cold, the next burning with heat. They had caught the black plague. So great a hold had it got on them that, scarcely able to move, worn out with fever and almost at the point of death, the breath of life had practically left their bodies.”5.Saint Willibald, Soldiers of Christ, p.150. Finally, Saint Germanus of Auxerre faced several demonological difficulties. First he faced “a man who was frequently the victim of demoniacal possession.” Later he foiled an attack by demons on a village. “First the children, then their elders, began to succumb to a swelling in their throats that brought death after an illness of less than three days. [Upon application of some blessed oil] the swelling went down and a passage was thereby opened for breathing and swallowing.”6.Saint Germanus, Soldiers of Christ, pp.82-84.

Female saints were no less efficacious. Victims suffered from paralysis, “severe pain the bowels,” blindness, possession by a “noonday demon,” a headache so prolonged “Adalsinda could not even raise her head, it had been aching so long,” and a sister who “suffered severely from a flow of blood.” All were touched by a saint’s grace.7.All from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.

The only person for whom we could say we have a detailed medical history is Charlemagne, as recorded by his biographer Einhard. Charlemagne is described as “strong and well built… tall in stature,” but “his neck was short and rather thick, and his stomach a trifle too heavy.” “His health was good, except that he suffered from frequent attacks of fever in the last four years of his life, and towards the end he was lame in one foot.” This last detail is attributed to gout, the ‘king of diseases and the disease of kings.’ Einhard describes the end of his emperor’s life in some detail.

[H]e was attacked by a sharp fever at some time in January, and so took to his bed. As he always did when he had a temperature, he immediately cut down on his diet, thinking he could cure his fever by fasting, or at least alleviate it. He then developed a pain in the side, called pleurisy by the Greeks, in addition to the temperature. He continued his dieting, taking liquids as his only nourishment, and those at rare intervals. On the seventh day after he had taken to his bed he received Holy Communion, and then he died.8.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.22, pp.76-77.

Interestingly the very first disease Isidore describes is fever (followed by frenzy). Given the frequency of the symptom, it probably appeared as the most common illness.

On the other hand, everyone had very good teeth, if a little worn from eating stone-ground bread, because the only sweetener was honey, a fairly rare treat.

I don’t think I go out too far on a fragile limb if I agree with Hippocrates, who said, “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.”

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.
2. Fredegar, bk.IV, ch.18, p.12. In the same sentence, which is indicative of how closely medieval writers tied disease with supernatural events, he notes “in the same year the water of the Lake of Thun, into which flows the river Aar, became so hot that it boiled and cooked shoals of fish.”
3. Saint Gerard, Soldiers of Christ, p.356.
4. Saint Martin, Soldiers of Christ, pp.18-20.
5. Saint Willibald, Soldiers of Christ, p.150.
6. Saint Germanus, Soldiers of Christ, pp.82-84.
7. All from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.
8. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.22, pp.76-77.

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