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  • Smallpox on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#10) Smallpox

    • Disease or medical condition

    Smallpox declined during the Middle Ages, but it did not disappear. As a disease that had been around for millennia, a portion of the population built up an immunity by the 14th century. As early as the 9th century, Islamic scholar Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (865-925 CE) wrote a medical treatise on smallpox and measles, describing symptoms and treatments for both.

    Al-Razi was fundamental in distinguishing between the two diseases, which had previously been lumped under the larger category of rashes. He determined that measles was not as serious as smallpox and that they had different causes. Al-Razi described the symptoms of smallpox as fever, back pain, and restless sleep. A person would feel swollen and their skin would be inflamed, similar to how the measles would manifest, but the latter often included headache and nausea.

    Smallpox, on the other hand, involved lethargy, throat pain, and thick throat saliva that could effect breathing and speaking. Al-Razi believed the best way to treat smallpox pustules was to wrap, rub, steam, purge, and bleed the afflicted individual. 

  • Unbalanced Humours on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#13) Unbalanced Humours

    Any unexplained ailment, and even one that could be explained, was often attributed to unbalanced humours. Medieval physicians sought to balance the four humours - blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile), and melancholy (or black bile). These humours had physical qualities that dictated the mind and body, and when one was out of balance, it led to disease. The principle dated back to Greek medicine and called for methods to bring about equilibrium. Diet, climate, exercise, herbal remedies, purges, and bloodletting could be used to rebalance humours.

    Balancing one's humors could be preventative or therapeutic. Bloodletting, for example, could be carried out according to a calendar. Humours corresponded to different seasons, making their seasonal importance that much more acute. As far as treatment, bloodletting was used for everything from the bubonic plague to gout. Once clergy men were prohibited from participating in bloodletting in 1163, professional barber-surgeons began bleeding people instead. 

  • Arthritis on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#11) Arthritis

    Evidence of arthritis has been found in skeletons from the medieval period, and several descriptions of the affliction can be found in medieval texts. Thirteenth-century Franciscan encyclopedist Bartolomaeus Anglicus called arthritis "an ache and disease in the fingers and toes with swelling and pain" and said arthritis was the result of "the age of the patient and the region in which he lives and from the climate."

    As he suffered from joint inflammation of his own, he lamented:

    One form of the disease is worse for it makes the fingers shrink and shrivels the toes and sinews of the feet and of the hands. This form... makes the hands dry and crooked and closed and incapable of being opened. Also it makes the joints of the fingers unsightly with knotty bunches and this sickness must be treated soon, for when it is old it is only curable with difficulty.

  • Leprosy on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#1) Leprosy

    • Disease or medical condition

    Caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria, leprosy is, arguably, as misunderstood today as it was during the Middle Ages. Now called Hansen's Disease, leprosy results in skin lesions and nerve damage that can impair a person's eyes and limbs. Leprosy develops slowly, and visible symptoms can take decades to manifest. 

    In medieval society, lepers were shunned and cast out of cities, towns, villages, and even the smallest of communities. Leper hospitals were established outside of town centers during the 12th century in France and the Low Countries. Facilities tasked to solely care for lepers were known as leprosaria (or leprosariums) and fell under the charitable auspices of the Church.

    Leprosy was common in both the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe from the 12th century forward, often transferred by pilgrims and Crusaders. Lepers were refused burial alongside non-lepers thanks to the Old Testament passage Leviticus 13:44-46:

    He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

    The social class of the leper dictated their overall reception, however. Alice the Leper, a lay sister from the Cistercian monastic order, remains the patron saint of the blind and the paralyzed after becoming both due to her leprosy. 

  • Bacterial Infection on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#7) Bacterial Infection

    Communal living during the Middle Ages made the transmission of disease and infection particularly troublesome. In medieval hospitals, infection was common due to a lack of cleanliness. Patients often suffered due to the prevailing "laudable pus" theory. Physicians believed that pus was a good sign and necessary for healing. If pus didn't appear, a doctor might find ways to produce by digging at the damaged area or finding another way to produce an abscess. 

    Not all doctors favored manipulating things to the point of abscess, however. Henri de Mondeville, a 13th and 14th century French surgeon, advocated for cleanliness and the closing of gashes and cuts as opposed to letting them openly fester. Mondeville even went so far as to recommend using wine as a disinfectant.

  • Dysentery on Random Afflictions You Might Have If You Lived In A Medieval City

    (#6) Dysentery

    Also known as "the flux," dysentery was endemic during the Middle Ages, common in medieval towns, cities, villages, monasteries, and among groups of soldiers. Dysentery results from bacteria or parasites in water or contaminated food and causes bloody diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.

    St. Martin, Bishop of Tours (d. 397 CE), described his own bout with the disease as so bad that he "completely gave up any hope of living."

    The cause of dysentery was generally unknown during the Middle Ages. During the 13th century, Arnau of Vilanova recounted the case of a youth who had "uncontrolled dysentery" and was asked by his physician where he got his food and water. The boy responded he got water from a stone cistern. The doctor advised him to stop drinking what he believed was "calcinated water" resulting from the stone and cement that lined the cistern. He supposedly quickly recovered after he stopped drinking the water.

    We know now that "calcinated water" was not the problem, but because the doctor inadvertently stopped him from drinking from a tainted water source, he did improve. In another instance, however, the disease was attributed incorrectly and the physician's advice had no effect on the patient; Vilanova mentioned an open roof allowed the wind to bring in dysentery.

    Generally, no one was safe, a fact 15th-century Italian polymath Girolamo Savonarola made clear when he observed that pestilential dysentery affected "not only in the same house but also in an entire locale, and with [the affliction] moving from a child of ten or fifteen to a sexagenarian." Savonarola himself came down with dysentery in 1495

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About This Tool

The Middle Ages was called the Dark Age for no reason. People at that time were indeed living in fear, especially the poor, who faced constant religious wars and deadly infectious diseases. In the mid-fourteenth century, a plague swept across Europe, killing tens of millions of people, and reducing the population of Europe by one-third. That plague was also called the Black Death. 

Many infectious diseases had even regularly repeated outbreaks, common diseases were malaria, diphtheria, flu, smallpox, and leprosy in the Middle Ages, which caused more deaths than ever. The random tool lists 13 dangerous infectious diseases you might suffer in a Medieval city.

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