15 Upsetting Foods People Ate To Try To “Cure” The Black Death

May 29, 2019

In October 1347, 12 ships arrived in Messina, a Sicilian port, after sailing across the Black Sea. When the vessels landed, the Sicilians were greeted with death. Most of the men on the ships died on their journey, and those who survived were covered in black, bloody boils. Although Sicilian authorities ordered the ships out of the harbor almost immediately after the discovery, it was too late. The black plague had arrived in Europe. Within five years the sickness stole the lives of 20 million people — about a third of Europe’s population.

No one knew what exactly caused the plague, also known as the black death. Most thought it was a punishment from God or a repercussion for eating weird foods. However, we now know that the plague was caused by a highly contagious disease-causing bacterium called Yersina pestis. It traveled through the air or in infected fleas and rats.

Because so little was known about the black plague’s cause and transmission, physicians were unprepared to deal with its consequences. Therefore, medical professionals of the day used a collection of herbs, foods, and substances to attempt to heal those afflicted.

Sadly, none of the archaic treatments actually worked and the plague killed off millions in a very short period of time. In fact, the plague has not completely vanished. It reappeared again and again throughout history. Luckily, now we know how to kill off Yersina pestis with methods that don’t include drinking urine, arsenic, or ingesting anything nefarious.

We hope you have a strong constitution because this list is pretty vile.

1. Mint Sauce

According to the BBC, mint sauce was one such condiment used to balance the body’s “humors.”

Words originally inherited from Ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen, these humors were blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), and phlegm (phlegmatic). Philosophers thought all four needed to be in perfect balance in order for the human body to operate correctly. Because of its mentholated cooling effect, mint sauce, which has been around since at least the 1200s, was most likely used to help bolster patients with unbalanced black bile and phlegm, two humors with “cold” qualities.

2. Vinegar

In modern times, we still sip apple cider vinegar to help digestion and improve our overall health.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that our medieval ancestors used vinegar for its health benefits during the bubonic plague. Vinegar was used in potions, but it was most likely swallowed straight without any added ingredients. It was also used to make air fresheners alongside, or in lieu of, herbal pomanders, to mask the smell of rotting flesh and death. Fun!

3. Mustard

Another condiment used to balance the humors was mustard, a spicy, “hot” remedy.

Mustard has been around since ancient Roman times and was used in many medieval recipes. It was also prescribed as a remedy for the black plague. Mustard plants were usually locally grown and were a popular crop due to the fact that they enhanced wheat and barley yields, and broke disease cycles in cereal grains. Mustard seeds were also referenced in the New Testament, and because many people relied on their faith in God to get through the plague, their reliance on mustard may have held religious significance.

4. Horseradish

Time to sweat it out.

Like mustard, zesty horseradish was prescribed to those affected by the plague in an effort to help them sweat out their disease. Again, this condiment was used to balance the humors with its spicy kick. Horseradish was most likely eaten by itself, or perhaps it was made into a sauce with sugar and water. Having to chomp down on raw horseradish seems more like a punishment than a treatment to us.

5. Applesauce

Applesauce was also used to balance the humors.

Due to the cinnamon and clove spices used while preparing it, applesauce was most likely used to help the “hot” humors: yellow bile and blood. A physician may have prescribed applesauce — along with “blowing one’s nose” or “clearing one’s throat” — to someone with too much “cold” phlegm. Imagine having your doctor prescribe nose blowing when you have a cold. Thanks, doc.

6. Arsenic

Arsenic was used in potions and topical treatments during the bubonic plague.

Its toxic properties were well known by Greek philosophers. Nero even fatally used arsenic on his stepbrother, Tiberius Britannicus in 55 CE. He wanted the Roman Emperor’s throne for himself. However, ancient Chinese people used it too. They believed the arsenic would poison other types of poison. Some physicians in Medieval Europe tried the same thing by mixing arsenic into ingestible potions. For example, the physician and playwright, Thomas Lodge, directed patients to place arsenic cakes on the swollen lymphs under their arms.

7. Crushed Minerals

An expensive concoction that only some people could afford.

If you could afford to consume crushed diamonds, emeralds, and other precious minerals, a doctor may prescribe you just that. Physicians would grind down precious gemstones and mix the dust with water to feed their rich clientele. It was a sparkly potion that was probably less than pleasant to choke down (it likely felt like eating bits of glass), and it did little to actually cure the symptoms of the plague. Oh well — at least it looked pretty.

8. Metallic Salts

Do not try this at home.

According to The Lancet, some physicians practicing during the black death prescribed metallic salts (mercury, cesium, aluminum, nickel, etc.) to their patients in an attempt to, once again, correct the balance of the body’s humors. Today, metallic salts are often used for processes like hair dying — and other processes that can be considered “toxic” if they’re ingested or inhaled for extended periods.

9. Unicorn Horn

Yeah, we were confused too.

Sometimes, potions made with metallic salts would also contain frog legs and powdered unicorn horn. These potions, sold at exorbitant prices by quacks who posed as physicians, were marketed as magic elixirs and cure-alls. Obviously, they didn’t work, and sadly many crooks got rich off of others’ dismal circumstances.

10. Treacle

This appears to be one of the most pleasant remedies that was prescribed to treat the black death, but just you wait.

“Treacle,” a word used by Middle English-speakers to refer to a kind of medicine, is any kind of uncrystallized syrup collected during the process of refining sugar. Although it sounds like a sweet treat, physicians and herbalists knew that in order to truly be effective as a medicine, treacle had to sit for 10 years. This gave it time to mature molds, yeast, and other disease-fighting cultures — or so they thought.

11. Natural Laxatives

Thomas Lodge wrote in his 1603 Treatise on the Plague that plant-based purgatives such as rhubarb, rose syrup, sorrel, endive, and purslane were prescribed to patients based on their humoral “complexion.”

These plants could be eaten by themselves or steeped in water or wine for easier consumption. Like bloodletting, which used leeches to suck out “poisoned” blood, these natural laxatives would, in theory, make a person expel the disease. However, extreme diarrhea often led to dehydration, and in an era when clean water was hard to come by, regaining strength after taking laxatives was no easy feat. Dehydration was just as dangerous as being stricken with the plague.

12. Urine

We’ve all been asked to give urine samples when visiting the doctor’s office for an annual checkup or when something is amiss with our health.

Medieval doctors also asked their patients for urine samples during the black death. However, rather than simply determining someone’s health status based on color or smell, some doctors chose to take a swig from the urine sample as a taste test. Other times, plague victims were instructed to bathe in urine at least two times per day. And this urine would have to be “clean,” meaning it was taken from healthy individuals. Vials of urine would be given to or sold to the sick for bathing and sometimes drinking purposes. Um… yuck.

13. Feverfew Potion

One such potion that was brewed up during the black plague was an herbal concoction with feverfew, scabious, mugwort, wild briar/dog rose leaves, mallow, yarrow, sage, and grape juice.

Cookit.org whipped up a batch of the green juice but recommended that no one try it. The potion was incredibly bitter and could easily be poisonous if the incorrect herbs and wildflowers were used.  Sadly, this potion most likely did nothing to make a patient feel better. In fact, it probably made them feel a lot worse.

14. Red Powder

One such remedy that was posted on fliers all over England was that for a mysterious red powder, which the author claimed had cured dozens.

The miracle red powder was most likely a sham sold by someone trying to make a quick buck. The advert told people to take a spoonful of the powder and head to bed, where the patient would need to sweat profusely for about three hours. If their humor was dry, then one could mix the red powder into a posset, which was a spiced drink made of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other alcoholic liquor. The author also noted that this red powder could be used to ward off smallpox, fevers, shivers, and illness thought to be caused by excessive eating or drinking.

15. Good Wine, Good Meat, with Good Company

Physicians highly recommended people eat together during the plague in order to avoid melancholy.

They believed that the feeling of stress or fear would bring the illness upon their patients. Therefore, people often ate their regular meals of meat, bread, ale, and wine together to promote merrymaking. “Such was the panic this plague provoked that people met for meals as a brigata (company) to cheer themselves up; one person would offer a dinner to ten friends, and the next evening it would be the turn of one of the others to offer the dinner, and sometimes they thought they were going to dine with him, and he had no dinner ready, because he was ill, and sometimes the dinner had been prepared for ten and two or three less turned up,” wrote Marchione di Coppo Stefani in the 1348 Florentine Chronicle.

No amount of archaic remedies could have helped the populations of Europe and North Africa during the spread of the black plague. Thankfully, we can rely on a lot more than unicorn horns and “red powder” to keep the plague at bay in the modern age.