For historians, the most devastating epidemic of all time is that of the Black Death. It reached Europe in October 1347, having affected Syria, Persia, China, India, and Egypt throughout the 1340s (History.com 2020). The epidemic went on to kill more than 20 million people. Its destruction gave rise to much plague folklore that persisted into later outbreaks.
One example is that of its very name. Some use ‘Black Death’ and ‘plague’ interchangeably.
Yet Pooja Gupta points out that the term ‘Black Death’ did not initially refer to the physical symptoms of the plague (2020). People assumed it did because the gangrene caused by plague turns body parts black.
Even though what we now call the Black Death sliced through Europe in the 14th century, the term ‘Black Death’ only appears in the 16th century. It came from a translation issue. Simon de Covinus, the Flemish astrology, wrote about the plague in 1350. He referred to it as ‘mors atra’, which could mean either ‘Terrible Death’ or ‘Black Death’. The translators chose the latter and the name stuck.
So the Black Death refers to the specific 14th-century epidemic of plague. We call the 1665 epidemic “the Great Plague”. This post will use ‘Black Death’ for anything relating to the earlier epidemic, and the plague for later outbreaks!
But let’s move on to our first plague figure that has moved into folklore…the plague doctor.
The plague bacteria wasn’t identified until 1894. Before that, people blamed a variety of things for causing the plague. That could be God (or the Devil), astrology, or ‘bad air’. In ancient times, some credited the god Apollo as being the bringer of plagues. (Hence the Roman adoption of his son, Aesculapius, as their god of medicine during an outbreak).
This ‘bad air’ theory explains the famous ‘plague doctor’ mask from the Great Plague period. Doctors stuffed sweet-smelling plants into the mask’s beak. In theory, the wearer couldn’t get sick because he couldn’t breathe the bad air.
In actual fact, the plague doctors had better protection from their overalls. These waxed leather overalls blocked the bodily fluids of those infected, helping to lower the risk of infection for the doctors. This early PPE consisted of gloves, a hat, boots, a long coat, and breeches.
The outfit is first mentioned by a French royal physician, who donned the leather garb during a 1619 outbreak. A German engraver published an image of the plague doctor get-up in 1656.
Paul Fürst turned this image into a piece of satire in the same year, called “Doctor Schnabel von Rom” (Doctor Beaky from Rome). Some people hated the costume because it showed that sick people were nearby. It was also this depiction that we recognise from the Carnival of Venice. Or was it?
According to Winston Black, there is some debate about which came first (2020). Did doctors take inspiration from the theatrical plague doctor for their PPE? Or did the theatrical version appear after doctors began to don their new protection? We’ll never know without further evidence.
Dubious Plague ‘Cures’
Joshua J. Mark explains that because no one knew what caused the plague, no one could cure it (2020). That didn’t stop people trying. There was a range of potions and pastes available, while some turn to practices like bloodletting or burning incense.
One of the most famous potions was Four Thieves Vinegar. It contained a range of spices including (but not limited to) wormwood, sage, rosemary, and clove. These were added to a base of either wine or cider vinegar. Thieves believed it made them immune to the plague so they could rob graves or even the homes of those afflicted by the plague.
Janine Mercer notes the tendency to ‘lance’ the buboes – or cut open the swellings (2018). This was to allow the ‘disease’ to leave the body. It sounds like it may not be the worst idea, since it would allow pus and other fluids to leave the body. Trouble was, the next part of the instructions advised people to mix white lily root, tree resin, and dried human excrement. This paste should then be applied to any cuts. So you’re letting out the germs in the pus, and introducing new ones through dried faeces. Nice.
There was also the Vicary Method, named after Thomas Vicary, an English doctor. You had to pluck the rear and back of a healthy, live chicken, and then strap its bare skin to the buboe of a sick person. When the chicken started to look sick, it was washed and strapped back on. The doctor continued this process until either the chicken or the patient died. They did so because they thought the chicken could draw the plague out of the victim (Mark 2020).
Did any practices actually work?
Quarantine and isolation were the only practices that really did anything useful. The effectiveness of quarantine was spotted in 1348, when Ragusa (now known as Dubrovnik, but then controlled by Venice) made incoming ships wait for 30 days in isolation. The practice “extended to 40 days under the law of quarantino (40 days) which gives English its word quarantine” (Mark 2020).
During the Great Plague, King Charles II issued a series of rules and orders, including this one:
That if any house be infected, the sick person or persons be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the family. And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for forty days, and have a Red Cross and Lord have mercy upon us in capital letters affixed on the door, and warders appointed, as well to find them necessaries, as to keep them from conversing with the sound”The National Archives
This practice of shutting up houses inspired my short story, Abandon Hope. Of course, not everyone followed quarantine rules. Wealthy people often fled to country estates, taking plague with them. This idea gave rise to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, later adapted for the screen by Roger Corman and starring the incomparable Vincent Price. Others who lived in cities continued to behave as normal. Even those shut up in quarantine found ways to sneak out of their houses, carrying the plague to others.
Other people looked to different supernatural causes. Pesta appears in Norwegian legends as an old woman. People call her the plague hag and she leaves the plague in her wake. According to Janine Mercer, she carries either a rake or a broom. If she’s spotted with the rake, some may be spared the plague, slipping through its teeth. But if she carries the broom, none shall pass (2018). She’s also believed to travel on a rat-filled ghost ship. Given the belief in rats as plague carriers, that makes sense!
LA Dahlmann relates a tale about Pesta in which she operated according to a set of rules. In this story, she hailed a boatman to carry her across a lake. Eventually, he realised who she was, and he asked her to spare him. If she did so, he wouldn’t charge for the journey. She consulted the book she carried with her and said she couldn’t spare him. That said, she would make it an easy death. He died in his sleep that night (no date).
Sandra Buerger explains this personification of disease as “rational” in the medieval era (2016). People did the best they could to create an explanation for something they couldn’t otherwise explain. Buerger also notes that sea travel “was a common mode of transmission” (2016).
Ring Around the Rosie
I couldn’t do an article about plague folklore and not include the oft-repeated myth about a children’s nursery rhyme and its links to the Black Death.
In case you haven’t heard it, the theory runs that ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ (or Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses) is actually about the plague. The ring of roses is apparently a deadly rash, the posies become a plague prophylactic, and the ‘all fall down’ refers to death.
And it is, quite bluntly, nonsense.
Stephen Winick makes an excellent point that the first direct link between the rhyme and the plague only dates to 1951 (2014). Even the folklorists who repeated this link were unconvinced. It’s not surprising. The ‘symptoms’ (such as the sneezing or the rash) present differently in bubonic plague to pneumonic plague (Winick 2014). Yet adherents to the theory stretch the rhyme to make it fit the theory.
Winick also points out that the rhyme didn’t appear in English until 1881 (2014). It’s unlikely that a rhyme existed from 1665 until 1881 with no record being made of it. On top of that, none of the late 19th and early 20th century folklorists who originally collected the rhyme mentioned a link with the plague (Winick 2014). Some people claim the rhyme dates to the 1347 outbreak of the Black Death. Yet David Mikkelson points out that were this true, we’d have Middle English versions too (2000).
Incidentally, both Mikkelson and Winick also note that the rhyme exists all over the world. Not all of the versions in other languages can be made to fit references to the plague. Even other variations of the rhyme in English make no reference to plague.
So it’s unlikely that the rhyme has anything to do with the plague. Yet the fact so many people believe it does has become a form of folklore in itself. Winick refers to this as ‘metafolklore’ – or “folklore about folklore” (2014). It becomes a fascinating example of what people choose to believe, despite the evidence.
Plague Folklore: Its Enduring Appeal
This post has touched on just some of the elements associated with the plague. From the creepy plague doctor masks to bizarre ‘cures’, they indicate a human populace desperate for help in the face of an implacable foe. We’ve seen similar myths play out in our own time, though we’ve apparently moved from the realm of the supernatural to the conspiracy theory.
Even the plague pits of London gave rise to folklore of their own. Click to explore the myth of the Charterhouse Plague Pit. The plague also gave rise to the famous tale of Eyam, the Derbyshire village that put itself into quarantine. The sacrifice of the villagers inspired my story, ‘This Was Paradise’, which you can read in my Harbingers collection, available for free below.
Finally, there’s a possibility that the belief rats spread the plague is merely folklore. A study from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara suggests that human lice carried the disease. There just weren’t enough rats for it to spread as quickly as it did (Gill 2018). Other scientists have made a compelling case that the Black Death was actually closer to ebola than plague (Paoli 2013). Further research is needed but would anyone believe a different story, if one should emerge?
We’ll probably never know, yet we’ll have these tales and superstitions all the same.
Which strange plague folklore have you heard?
Buerger, Sandra (2016), ‘Pesta: The Personification of the Black Plague in Norway’, Myths and Microbes, https://mythsandmicrobes.com/2016/09/29/pesta-the-personification-of-the-black-plague-in-norway/.
Black, Winston (2020), ‘Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts’, Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/plague-doctors.html.
Dahlmann, LA (no date), ‘Folk tales | Pesta and the Black Death | Norway’, talk Norway, https://talknorway.no/folk-tales-pesta-and-the-black-death-norway/.
Gill, Victoria (2018), ‘Black Death ‘spread by humans not rats’, BBC News: Science and Environment, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42690577.
Gupta, Pooja (2020), ‘Debunked Myths about the Bubonic Plague’, The Plainspoken Scientist, https://blogs.agu.org/sciencecommunication/2020/07/21/12271/.
History.com (2020), ‘Black Death’, History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death.
Mark, Joshua J. (2020), ‘Medieval Cures for the Black Death’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1540/medieval-cures-for-the-black-death/.
Mercer, Janine (2018), ‘The Black Death: Folklore and the Plague’, Haunt Heads: The podcast that goes bump in the night, https://hauntheads.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/the-black-death-folklore-and-the-plague/.
Mikkelson, David (2000), ‘Is ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ About the Black Plague?’, Snopes, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ring-around-rosie/.
Paoli, Julia (2013), ‘Could the Black Death Actually Have Been an Ebola-like Virus?’, Nature.com, https://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/viruses101/could_the_black_death_actually/.
The National Archives (no date), ‘Orders for the prevention of the plague 1666 (SP29/155 f102)’, The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/great-plague/source-2/.
Winick, Stephen (2014), ‘Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason’, Library of Congress, https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/07/ring-around-the-rosie-metafolklore-rhyme-and-reason/.
Ghosts & goddesses
Would you like more folklore and weird tales? Add your email to get them once a month, and receive this free copy of my short story collection too!