If you think the Coronavirus panic, pandemic and pandemonium is unprecedented , then you would be wrong. True, the media keeps on saying so, but there is nothing new about plagues and pandemics.
In around the year 540 CE - in the time of the Emperor Justinian - plague swept around the Mediterranean basin, brought in by ships sailing from the Black Sea bringing goods from Central Asia. Its effects lasted 200 years! So should we be concerned about a matter of months or a year in the present COVID19 crisis?
Even in this 21stcentury few children in Europe are unfamiliar with the name of the Black Death. Folk memory lives on, for this plague was at its worst in the mid 1300’s seven hundred years ago. No one knows the true figures of deaths caused by this plague but estimates suggest up to 60% of the population of Europe could have died. That desperate street cry of ‘Bring out the Dead’ has echoed down the centuries.
Like the modern day diseases of SARS (short for severe acute respiratory disease) and COVID 19, the origin of many pandemics seem to have originated East of Europe, perhaps China being the leading culprit. The Silk Road was the likely route the bacteria responsible for the Black Death took to Europe. The Silk Road ended in Italy, and tradition also has it that Genoese ships carried the plague due to ship-born rats infested with the fleas which acted as the vehicle of transmission. Next, the pandemic moved to France, then Spain, and then Northward into Germany – how reminiscent of today.
A pandemic has to cross borders and to be infectious. So many diseases are, or have been, pandemics or at least epidemics. Of course, a number of the old enemies have been, to great degree conquered or suppressed, such as tuberculosis, or more lately smallpox or even measles, by vaccination and the new wonder drugs of the 20th century.
Plague was a recurring issue in history and London took a beating in the 17thcentury. We know the outbreak began in the suburb of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a poor and cramped neighbourhood. Everyone who could fled to the country, but the city was placed in Lockdown. People were confined to their homes, and a red cross painted on all doors where the plague had hit. It is estimated that around 100,00 people died. The epidemic came to an end when The Great Fire of London took hold and burnt out the plague areas.
The last great plague pandemic lasted almost 100 years beginning in Yunnan province in China in the 1850’s, but it was often called ‘Bombay Plague’; it finally disappearing in the 1950’s. Unlike the present Corona virus crisis, the plague was a bacterial problem identified in 1897 by a French Swiss national part of a team sent to Hong Kong to study the disease. His name was Alexandre Yersin and the bacteria were named for him, Yersinia pestis!
A year later, Paul Louis Somond established that transmission was via fleabites. Black rats were the carriers of the fleas and unlike the more cautious brown rats the black rats were happy around humans - hence the spread. Another common name for this rat was ‘ship rat’ so its ability to travel was recognised.
40 Days in the Wilderness
So many similarities to the troubles of the present day. Fortunately we live in an enlightened age as far as medicine is concerned. But quarantining as practiced in the medieval world, at least in Islamic countries from the 6thcentury, has stood the test of time! Lockdowns and quarantining were the main methods of control. The Venetian ports introduced a practice of asking ships to stand off port for forty days to make sure of its good healthy crew. The practice - called quarantine - was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days. The list of notifiable diseases subject to quarantine laws today include cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral haemorrhagic fevers (such as Marburg, Ebola, and Congo-Crimean), and severe acute respiratory syndromes from the coronavirus origins.
Medieval doctors had access to a huge range of natural healing herbs and substances. Chaucer refers to a tribe of apothecaries. Doctors used posies, oranges or lighted tapers and incense to clean the air of ill humours. They believed that bad smells carried disease. They believed that they could protect themselves from catching the disease by carrying something nice-smelling. This habit was still prevalent well into the Victorian era when vinaigrettes were commonly used, held in the kerchief supposedly to cover the stench of squalor.
Four Thieves Vinegar
This brings to mind the vinegar of the four thieves. It did not cure the plague. However wine and wine vinegar had become widely used as an antiseptic, as is rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit today, which are very effective sanitisers. Different wines (and later, spirits) were used but the alcohol content was generally too low to be effective, although I suppose it was better than nothing.
Various recipes exist, but the one supposedly an original - and now in Paris - contains wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, cloves, campanula roots, angelica, rosemary and horehound and camphor. Many of these are aromatic and were not cheap. The idea of steeping these in vinegar today is fun but of course some of these ingredients would be dried herb and some fresh, but certainly not essential oils back then. Today essential oils could be used and the dried herbs are available.
Novel to many would be campanula or harebell and it was used for lung problems. White horehound is similarly used. Taken as a whole it looks more like something for respiratory problems than bubonic plague! It could be considered an old version of a modern sanitiser or cleanser as several of these herbs do have antibacterial properties, as does vinegar itself.
The website Studio Botanica https://www.studiobotanica.com/vinegar-of-the-four-thieves/relates one of the many versions of the story of the four thieves. This is Carol Little’s version, a traditional herbalist from Toronto, she tells it so well:-
"Picture it... Marseilles, 1281. This great port town has been levelled by the great plague… Few homes unaffected and many dead ‘stopped in their tracks’. Homes were looted and ravaged by marauders. Chaos prevailed. Apparently there were four men who worked in the shipyards and in a factory processing herbs and spices from abroad. At one point they realized that, while working long days, covered in the powdered dusty dregs of the herbs in the warehouse, they seemed to have ‘an edge’ over the rest of the city. These factory workers-turned thieves were eventually apprehended and were facing certain death as punishment for their crimes. As the story goes, when they came before the judge, he was motivated to grant them a pardon if they shared their secret to ‘staying alive’. They were more than happy to tell all, and were released. The magic of the herb and spice powders from the warehouses, once again, instrumental in saving their lives. We actually don’t know how the judge managed to douse himself in the herbs but I like to think that he managed to outwit the deadly plague and lived on to tell the story!"
Thanks for this retelling, Carol!
Can Essential Oils Help?
Many aromatherapists wonder if essential oils can act against this virus. Science has verified that Tea Tree oil and Eucalyptus globulus are capable of inactivating airborne viruses. In combination with Fragrant Earth’s ‘Combatier’, which certainly includes this Eucalyptus. Anti flu essential oils that have been tested as effective include marjoram, clary sage and anise. It is not all about killing germs, though essential oils are known to possess multifunctional properties such as anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory activities. Bergamot too comes out surprisingly well as strongly antibacterial. Without direct tests on COVID19 with essential oils it would be unwise to exaggerate the benefits of essential oils as a solution. The work done on Eucalyptus and Tea Tree suggests that using diffusers to combat aerial dispersion is a good idea. At Fragrant Earth we suggest that if you are using or testing essential oils for personal or family protection in diffusers you include Thyme (thymol), Rose Geranium and the aforementioned Tea Tree and Bergamot. With such activity one can see that you are supporting the immune system.
On the basis that most of the infected persons are suffering flu-like symptoms from which they will quickly recover, essential oils do have a role to play but without miraculous claims. Lastly I strongly suggest Bergamot for its clean and bright smell and aspect. There is a psychology to all this. The Media - especially the BBC - and some newspapers, constantly drip bad news, cast doubt on the government, exaggerate the role of the NHS and its needs, set one set of workers against another, set scientists in conflict with their computer models and generally contribute to fear and anxiety. Is this a deliberate policy? What it does achieve is fear and negativity, strangely guised as pulling together.
Cheer up with Bergamot and Tangerine and let them waft your troubles away or at least into perspective. The world has been here before and survived.