16 April 2011

Miasmatic Theory

Back in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was no understanding of microbes as a cause of disease. Generally speaking, disease states were understood as products of internal imbalance within the individual. If you had a cold, for example, it was thought that you had too much cold and damp in your body, which needed to be expressed as phlegm - one of the four humours (the other three were black bile, yellow bile, and blood).

The Four Temperaments / Humours of Galen
Generally speaking, this is a highly functional medical model, despite the idiosyncracies of some of its terminology. If your body is healthy and in balance, you will be better able to fight most microbes, after all.

When it came to bubonic plague, however - a disease that could fell a perfectly healthy person in a matter of days, and that caused large quantities of black pus / blood to pool in lumps at the surface of the skin - medieval and Renaissance medical people knew they needed something more to explain what was going on.

That's where miasmatic theory comes in.

Although the idea of microbes was still a little way off, early doctors proposed the idea that plague was caused by infection from outside the individual. The cause? Foul air, or "miasma." The understanding of what made air foul was pretty broad. A "miasma" could mean bad, stinking breath, rotten smells, or even the "atmosphere" in places where people were crowded together and overexcited - like the theatre. (But not church.)

This obviously posed a huge challenge to London city dwellers throughout the Renaissance. London was a notoriously stinky place. Open sewers, mass graves, and slaughterhouses within the city walls all proved a challenge when it came to avoiding stink.

Practices arose designed to counteract bad smells during plague time. The famous plague doctor's mask, resembling a bird beak, contained pleasant-smelling herbs at the end. Inhaling through the herbs, the wearer could avoid exposure to bad smells and thus hopefully avoid infection.

Plague Doctor's Outfit
In the sick room, doctors distributed herbs and flowers, or heated them on warm bricks in order to dispel the infected air.
A doctor attempts to freshen the air in a plague house.
The practice of carrying a nose-gay - a small bouquet of flowers - arose during the same time. Any time you encountered a bad smell, you could sniff the flowers, and thus decontaminate yourself. Sachets - nice-smelling small pillows stuffed with herbs and flowers - are a worldwide practice. In the east, they are thought to drive away evil spirits. In the west, they originated as a remedy for disease.


joanne lee said...

Some very interesting information!

Luanne G. Smith said... I can't believe you posted about this. I've been researching plague doctors from the Italian Renaissance period for an idea I have for my next WIP. Plague isn't the happiest of subjects, but you can't deny the inherent conflict. :)

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Joanne: Thanks!

@L.G.: If you need any information, let me know. I studied plague for 4 1/2 years as part of my PhD. I can direct you to all sorts of great resources. My area of specialty was urban and suburban London, but I know quite a bit about the continent, too.

Deborah Walker said...

I love medical hitory. I used to be the curator at the Royal Veterinary Musuem, all these ideas applied to animal medicine, too.

Liz P said...

Very cool, love this stuff!

Claudie A. said...

Just found you through the A to Z challenge, and this is such an amazing post. I'm a biochemist myself, so anything that touches plagues (especially historical) are right up my alley.

I shall be sticking around, that's certain. :)

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Deborah: I did not know that! Cool.

@Liz: Thank you!

@Claudie: Be sure to stop by for "P." You will love it.