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  • 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

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

    (#12) Infant Mortality

    There were a lot of diseases that could shorten one's life during the Middle Ages, and infants and children were particularly vulnerable. Whooping cough and diphtheria were more prevalent in young populations, especially in towns and cities. In Scotland, the remains from one Aberdeen cemetery revealed 53% of the buried individuals were under the age of 6, while in Linlithgow, it was 58%.

    Some historians estimate infant mortality during the Middle Ages was as high as 30 to 50%, while others believe 20% is a more accurate figure. That said, it's difficult to get a clear assessment of stillborns and infant mortality. Infant's bones decay more quickly than their adult counterparts, and if an infant was not baptized prior to burial, it would not have been buried in a Christian cemetery. 

    Diseases weren't the only causes of infant mortality. Iron deficiency, often the result of extended breastfeeding, was common. This could contribute to poor health for women and their children alike. Additionally, bleeding during childbirth or a miscarriage could further weaken a woman with anemia


  • 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. 

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

    (#9) Pneumonia

    Both pneumonia and pleurisy were common during the Middle Ages, and once the writings of Galen were translated into Latin during the 5th century, distinguishing between the two conditions became more clear. According to Galen's Therapeutics to Glaucon, both pneumonia and pleurisy were respiratory diseases, but the former presented with a fever, difficulty breathing, and chest pain. 

    Some individuals showed signs of redness and had difficulty laying down, often attributed to "humor in the lungs." In contrast, pleurisy also included chest pain, but the discomfort could radiate through the shoulders and down into one's groin. Both afflictions could result in coughing up blood. The important distinction was that pneumonia could lead to pleurisy, but the latter could also result from traumatic damage as well. Treatments for both were determined based on the cause.

    Galen's contributions to understanding pneumonia were taken up by 12th-century philosopher and writer Moses Maimonides. He described the symptoms of pneumonia as "acute fever, sticking [pleruitic] pain in the side, short rapid breaths, serrated pulse and cough, mostly associated with sputum." 

    Being able to identify pneumonia made the plague outbreak of the 14th century more complicated, however. When individuals exhibited the symptoms associated with pneumonia, it was assumed they had the more dangerous of the two diseases. According to historian Ole Jorgen Benedictow, plague patients often coughed up blood regardless of what type of plague they had, making it difficult to assess how many cases of pneumonic plague truly presented themselves during the 14th century. 

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

    (#8) Syphilis

    • Disease or medical condition

    The origins of syphilis remain contested, but by the late 15th century, the disease had hit Europe. In 1495, French soldiers were said to have contracted the disease during the siege of Naples, where it may have been widespread since as early as 1429. Spanish physician and scholar Gaspar Torella wrote about syphilis in the 1490s, describing the ulcers and swelling that could afflict one's genitals before other pains, pustules, and maladies appeared. He dedicated the work to Cesare Borgia (1475-1507), a Valencian military leader and statesman, because it was Borgia's affliction that brought the disease to light for the doctor.

    Borgia may have contracted syphilis from a sex worker he visited in 1497. There are theories that Borgia perished of the disease, and he certainly demonstrated physical symptoms, described by a contemporary in 1504 as having a face that "was ravaged and blotched."

  • 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.

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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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