The Role Of Galenic Therapeutics In Medical Treatments During The Black Death

The Black Death killed one third to a half of the European population from 1347 to the 1350s. Victims of the plague sought help from licensed medical professionals and healers that prescribed treatments originating from local folklore and ancient medical knowledge. With people dying at alarming rates, doctors offered all kinds of medicines based on Galenic beliefs. The three sources in this paper identified some of the more popular medicines and remedies that were prescribed, and examined why these treatments were believed to actually work. Investigating the reasoning behind plague treatments gives interesting insight into what people thought of the plague while it was happening.

In Joseph P. Byrne’s 2006 book, Daily Life During the Black Death, he gave insight into the various preventive and curative treatments used during the plague. He provided sufficient background information and avoided complex terminology which made it an easy read for people with little knowledge of the plague. Byrne noted that surgeons learned through active participation, unlike physicians who gained knowledge through reading and studying. Therefore, surgeons, not physicians, did the hands-on medical work. Although, surgeons’ did not have much of an educational background, their shops were essential to the local people that relied on them.

In addition, Byrne asserted that local folklore and Galenic beliefs heavily affected medical practice during the Black Death. Following Galenic thought, doctors believed in avoiding bad air or warm and moist foods that could cause the body's humors to become unstable. There was also an emphasis on the importance of being able to excrete the poison from the body. People were convinced by both medical professionals and quacks to wear amulets containing gems or mercury mixed with other compounds that supposedly thwarted bad spirits and resisted poison, and doctors practiced bloodletting in order to extract the poison. Byrne concluded that most of the medically unfounded methods and treatments provided at that time were highly ineffective.

In Christiane Nockels Fabbri’s 2007 article, “Treating Medieval Plague: The Wonderful Virtues of Theriac,” from the journal, Early Science and Medicine, she explained why theriac was such a popular remedy for treating the Black Death, and why it was so commonly prescribed for a variety of medical problems. Fabbri described the components of theriac. Although theriac was made from a complex recipe, Fabbri asserted that opium was the key element in its effectiveness.

Fabbri claimed that theriac contained viper flesh and was first created as a snakebite treatment due to the idea that poison can be used to fight poison. After it became more widely accepted, it was used similarly to how antidepressants are used today. Theriac was also used to treat almost any sickness. Fabbri suggested that considering theriac’s lasting popularity, studying theriac under modern scientific conditions might lead to a better understanding of the components that made it an effective treatment. She also noted that there was a noticeable absence of opium on the ingredient list in modern studies of theriac, possibly due to a lack of historical evidence. If scientists were to reevaluate the effects of theriac, they would want to know the real impact that opium had on the recipe’s effectiveness.

In addition, Fabbri also addressed restrictions due to the lack of a generally accepted theriac recipe. She encountered language barriers, difficulties in understanding medieval terminology, and past inaccurate plant identification that made the materials she researched hard to decipher. She concluded that even though it did not cure plague victims, theriac provided significant pain relief which made it a logical medical choice at the time.

In his 2017 article, Erik A. Heinrichs, a professor and historian with a PhD from Harvard, examined the long history of the 'live chicken' 'chicken rump' treatments used to remove poison from buboes. The article was probably not meant for a general audience. It discussed one specific medical treatment and is limited mainly to German plague writings. Therefore, readers most likely have some previous knowledge of the Black Death since Heinrich’s article seems to be more focused on one topic than other articles that cover a broader range of plague information. For example, although Fabbri’s article focuses specifically on theriac, she provides some related background information on the history of opium.

Heinrichs claimed that Avicenna believed that chickens were beneficial to one’s humors and helpful in counteracting what Galen referred to as a poison’s “total substance”.

According to Heinrichs, during plague times, Jacme d’Agramont developed Avicenna’s recipe into the “chicken rump” treatment which was meant to suction the poison out of the infected area using a chicken’s behind. The recipes evolved over time and were documented in plague tracts such as Ambrosius Jung’s plague treatise of 1494 and Arnau de Vilanova’s plague tract. Physicians and doctors made adjustments and changes such as the addition of salt, forcing the chicken to breathe from the bottom through its cloaca, and an emphasis on the Galenic belief in the importance of heat to fight toxins. However, Heinrichs noted that although physicians wrote down these changes, they did not often experiment and actually test the “live chicken” and “chicken rump” methods until the sixteenth century. Heinrichs concluded that the evolution of the “live chicken methods” highlighted the constant advancement of medical thought and the shift to a more experimental study of medicine.

All three sources show that Galenic therapeutics were an important influence on medical treatments during the Black Death. However, Byrne, Fabbri and Heinrichs had different opinions on the importance of historical medical thinking. Byrne looked very negatively at historical medicine and did not value Galenic therapeutics and other medieval remedies. On the other hand, Heinrichs pointed out the influence that medieval physicians’ newfound creativity and experimentation had on the development of medical practice. Fabbri asserted that evaluating historical medicine and making connections to the present may help medical researchers in the discovery and development of modern treatments. Both Fabbri and Heinrich believed that certain plague medicines’ longevity and popularity warranted a more in depth study of their effectiveness and that the validity of medieval treatments should not be ignored just because physicians of that time lacked modern medical knowledge. 

10 Jun 2021
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