The setting: Medieval Europe. The problem: the pope is living in Avignon, under strict control from the French King. The plague is ravaging Europe, leaving behind whole cities of corpses. Sanitation is very poor, there are no sewer systems, and more often than not, one could find human and animal feces lining the streets. The standard of living is very low, and much of this is blamed on religion. Many people would like to see the pope dead. Solutions are virtually non-existent. The pope is looking for a way to restore his power, and improve the life of Europeans.
The main problem facing the pope was, of course, the plague. Nearly twenty-five million people had died of this highly infectious disease already, and it didn’t appear to be slowing. Medieval physicians had developed a number of “cures,” some as absurd as placing live chickens on the wounds of the infected. Due to the primitive technology at that time, there were very few actual cures. Many of the practices of the doctors were invented simply to deceive the populous into believing that they had cured and that all was not lost.
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The pope, in his quarters at Avignon, sat between two large fires. They thought that this would purify the “bad air” which most blamed for the spread of the plague. Although there was no bad air, the fires actually did prevent the plague, killing off the bubonic bacteria. This was an example of what some people call “accidental science,” or a discovery made from superstition, or by accident.
From the viewpoint of a medieval doctor, there were few things you could do. Most medicines at that time were based on the four humours and the four qualities. The four senses of humour were phlegm, blood, bile, and black bile. Illness would occur when these senses of humour were imbalanced. Doctors often let blood, attempting to restore balance. There were also four qualities; heat, cold, moistness, dryness. Diseases were often deemed to have two qualities, i.e. hot and dry. If a person had a disease that was hot and dry, they would be administered a plant that was considered cold and moist.
Basically what I have tried to say in the previous two chapters is that there was no medicinal cure for the plague in medieval times. If they had antibiotics, however, there would have been very few fatalities.
The other large problem that the pope had to deal with was, of course, the fact that life in Europe sucked at the time, and that everyone wanted him dead. The poor standard of living was due to many factors. Poor sanitation, famine, disease, war, poverty, you name it, they suffered through it. Many of these problems were much more easily solved than the plague.
The digging of a public sewer system would have alleviated many of the pestilence and disease problems of the age. The Bubonic plague was carried by fleas that resided on rats. The rats infested the cities because of poor sanitation and the filth that coated the cities. If the cities were cleaner, the rats would not number as many, and they would stay in the sewers, as they do today (mostly).
Another problem was famine. There was more than one reason for this. Many farmers died of the plague, which decreased the landowner’s ability to produce enough food. Also, many nobles died of the plague, and their slaves and farmers would move away and stop farming the land. Working-class people also died, leaving many positions in the cities open, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, bakers, etc. If the pope or kings had given free land to people to farm, maybe they would have produced food. The king could also have paid peasants to farm for him.
While the pope was at Avignon, there were other leaders of the church trying to claim power. They were splitting the populous, and often this led to battles and bloodshed. There was also the great schism, or splitting, of the church. Rome and Constantinople, two centers of Christianity, had been quarrelling for quite some time. The crusaders had taken over the east, and they pillaged many cities, including Constantinople.
They did not take the time to distinguish between Christians and Muslims, killing and raping. Finally, the orthodox east declared itself separate from Rome. This added to the political and religious disputes that were already present with the crusades. The pope could have had the other religious leaders killed to protect his reign, but either he didn’t think of it, or he hadn’t the cajones.
By 1450, the Dark Ages were ending, and the Renaissance beginning. The plague had disappeared, save for small, isolated outbreaks a couple of times a century. Columbus had sailed to America, scientists made important discoveries, and art flourished. So begins modern history.
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