Starting with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Europe would suffer from repeated attacks of the plague for the rest of the Middle Ages and for centuries afterwards. It is not surprising that people sought the best ways they could avoid contracting the illness – in late medieval and Renaissance Italy the fight against plague was often waged in the air.
One of the early ideas about the causes of plague was that there was a contamination of the air – that bad odours were spreading the disease. In cities such Florence, which was hit by several major epidemics between 14th and 17th centuries, the prevailing medical advice on how to avoid getting sick was to surround oneself with pleasant fragrances. In her book Toliette, Perfumes and Make-Up at the Medici Court, Valentina Fornaciai explains:
People relied on various scented items to fight the contaminated air: they hung little bottles of perfume on their belts, they put little bags full of scents between scented clothes, they wore jewels and other accessories made of perfumed paste and they even sprinkled their hands and arms with vinegar. Scented sponges and balls became a part of people’s typical defences when they went out. Acute, bitter scents like vinegar were thought to be of great help. In view of the fact that it had a strong smell, vinegar was also ‘splashed’ out of specifically made containers on hot summer days when the miasma from urban waste and the dreadful bodily odour from people became unbearable. In times of suspected or confirmed outbreaks of the plague or even in normal conditions, houses had to be full of odorous fumes. Fragrant extracts were scattered around or mixed with scented waters and sprinkled and scented powders or pastes were burned in perfume burners and so forth.
The famous Medici family, which ruled Florence for much of this period, were also interested in how to avoid the plague, and they had the money and resources to be able to follow the leading medical advice of the time. Around the turn of the seventeenth-century, one of the family members, Antonio de Medici (1576–1621), collected various plague remedies. These medical recipes included creating scented balls that people would carry with them, oils to rub over their bodies, and foods to eat or drink that would supposedly offer them protection.
Here are several of the recipes collected by Antonio de Medici, translated by Valentina Fornaciai:
[The plague] is caused by two things, from the heating of the blood, and its contamination so we have to take care of things which heat the blood: strong wines, the great exertion of worry and fear, mutton, old birds, all hot herbs, like mint, sage, rue, rosemary and marjoram, all citrus fruits, leeks, garlic, onions and shallots contaminate the blood, meat…, and fish, cabbage, and all fruits except pomegranate, oranges, lemons and dried plums but not too many, take care to not eat too much, sleep too much, especially during the day, take care of the wind, don’t have too much sexual contact and avoid all bad smells but when one one is infected…heat a cloth…and wrap the patient in it, and when they begin to sweat dry them with linen cloths and let them sweat.
Half an ounce of fine purged laudanum, 3 ounces of fine calamite storax, myrrh, and 5 drachms of cloves, one drachm of Valerian juice, fine musk, and one carat of imbracane and the things to be blended should be carefully crushed, and sifted, and the gums should be put in a hot mortar, then add lemon balm juice, and bugloss, and make the ball, and keep it in your hand, it will be of great benefit.
Rue tops, one clove of garlic, a walnut, a grain of salt, and eat on an empty stomach everyday for up to a month, and you must be cheerful, and this recipe, it’s good against vermin and it’s perfect.
Take aloe or succotrin, fine cinnamon myrrh in equal quantities of 3 drachms, clove, macior, aloe wood, mastic, 2 drachms of prepared Armenian bole [red coloured earth], grind everything together in a mortar carefully and mix, then place in a well stopped up glass vase or a well closed box so it doesn’t evaporate and when you need it in times of suspected outbreaks or if you want to go to a place at risk of the plague take 2 coins in weight of this powder in the morning on an empty stomach with two fingers of white wine and by doing this, please God, you will not have any illness.
Take white dittany, astrologia rotunda, carline thistle, verbena, gentian, curcuma, deer antlers in equal quantities of 2 drachms, grind them a little with a handful of rue, and take a flask of the best wine you can find and put everything together…leave it until a suspected outbreak occurs than take half a glass of this wine every morning rather than leave home on an empty stomach, but you must first take a walnut, and a dry fig and three sprigs of rue, and do this every morning and every evening, and you will be safe for that day.
Take 6 ounces of sulphur, 2 ounces of arsenic, 6 ounces of Palestine incense, 9 cloves. One nutmeg, 2 scruples of mace, 1 scruple of St Peter’s leaves, 2 scruples of radish leaves, 9 laurel berries, 1 scruple of knapweed leaves, 5 grains of myrrh, verbona root and ginger in equal quantities. Orange peel, peony leaves in equal quantities of 2 scruples, 5 grains of mastic, 30 rue seeds. Grind everything together and reduce to a rough powder. Put in a little bag made or red satin or damask and wear around the neck on the side of the heart, and in the summer put it over your heavy coat, and in the winter over your shirt so sweat does not ruin it.
Take purified mercury 5 pounds 6 ounces, common salt 1 pound 4 ounces. Green copper 2 pounds 8 ounces. Hungarian vitriol 1 pound 4 ounces. Grind together and put in a new iron pan and fill with blacksmith’s water and bring slowly to the boil, stirring with a wooden spatula, and everything will bind together to form a metallic paste. Make medals which will become hard in the open air and wear them around the neck, they are good for warding off the plague.
See also: Fighting the plague in medieval towns
Top Image: Florence at night – photo by Francesco Caminiti