By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D. , Purdue University
During the plague, many texts were composed in response to the Black Death—medical treatises, chronicles, letters of warning, sermons, Masses, poetry, and more. Some of the literary works during the plague became the greatest the world has ever produced. If there ever was a silver lining to be found, this was it.
The Writing of a Medical Treatise
In the midst of the first wave, those who practiced medicine were pressed into service to try and explain what was happening. The king of France commissioned the medical faculty of the University of Paris to write a consilium or medical treatise that would explain where the plague had come from, steps that might be taken to avoid infection and options for treating the sick.
This treatise spent a great deal of time explaining how the conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter were to blame, as were the weather and the occurrence of several earthquakes. And diagnosis and treatment were based on Galenic medicine—named for the Greek physician Galen, who lived in the second century.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Galen’s Theory and its Use in the Middle Ages
Galen theorized that the health of an individual was dependent on the four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—and it was dependent upon them being in balance or harmony.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, medical science still subscribed to this theory. And as we all know today, it was pretty much useless. Patients who were treated according to the theory of the four humors recovered in spite of—not because of—the treatment of their physicians.
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Interesting Medical Letters
Many texts composed after 1348 dealt explicitly with illness, death, and dying—since half the population had died, and an additional percentage had contracted plague but managed to survive.
While consilia had been a literary tradition before the arrival of the plague, between 1348 and 1350, there was a veritable flood of them being produced by medical professionals throughout the medieval world. What’s interesting is that many of them take rather unusual forms.
While most are formal, technical documents, some are written as letters to the leaders of a particular community. For example, five physicians in Strasbourg composed theirs as a collaborative effort, addressed it to the leaders of that town, and entitled their work The Treasure of Wisdom and Art.
Some consilia were actually written in verse. As subsequent outbreaks of plague occurred, more and more of these were composed. Some scholars estimate that around 900 plague tracts were written between 1348 and 1500.
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The Art of Dying in Literary Works during the Plague
Along with a surge of popularity of plague tracts came an interest in the theme of the Ars moriendi, or Art of Dying. The Ars moriendi, first of all, admonishes the reader to not be afraid of death and then offers a checklist of the sorts of temptations that a person on the point of dying must be aware of.
Because when a person is on the point of death, that is when Satan is most likely to move in and try to claim the soul for himself. Those who are close to death should beware of pride, impatience, avarice, lack of faith, and perhaps most importantly, despair, which is really the one unforgivable sin.
Practical Advice at the Time of Death
If you despair, then you have given up on the possibility that God might save you, and God, being all-powerful, can, of course, always intercede and claim your soul for himself. After this checklist, there comes some practical advice. The third section lays out seven questions that one should ask a dying person in order to help them prepare themselves for the experience yet to come.
The fourth is concerned with counseling people to try and imitate the example of Christ while still alive, while the fifth concerns the specifics of how to go about death and dying: Where should your family stand around your deathbed? What things should be said or not said? What kind of comforts should be offered, or maybe withheld? The text wraps up with a final section detailing the prayers that should be said on the occasion of a person’s death.
Common Questions about First Literary Works during the Plague
They wrote a treatise among in which they blamed the conjunction of certain planets and also earthquakes and bad weather for the outbreak of the plague. This didn’t stop them from trying to treat the plague by balancing the four humors.
Galen was a Greek physician. He lived in the second century and theorized that the health of an individual was dependent on the four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—and it was dependent upon them being in balance or harmony.
Along with a surge of popularity of plague tracts came an interest in the theme of the Ars moriendi, or Art of Dying. The Ars moriendi admonishes the reader to not be afraid of death and then offers a checklist of the sorts of temptations that a person on the point of dying must be aware of.