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The Black Death & Bubonic Plague in the Elizabethan Era

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Symptoms, effects, consequences, cure and medical treatment

William Shakespeare and the Black Death / Bubonic Plague
William Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era when the bubonic plague, sometimes referred to as the Black Death, was virulent. He was known to have a terrible fear of the deadly disease and its consequences and this is hardly surprising as it touched so many areas of his life including his life as an actor at the Globe Theater.

There were high mortality rates amongst Elizabethan children and this was true of the brothers and sisters of Shakespeare some of whom were struck down by the Bubonic  plague (Black Death)

Brothers and Sisters of Shakespeare

In the Elizabethan era therewas pestilence and repeated outbreaks of the Bubonic  plague (Black Death) and these were not just confined to highly populated towns such as London. The country area and villages were not exempt from the disease either - there was no hiding place. Information regarding the handling of the Bubonic  plague (Black Death), symptoms, medical treatment and cure used during the Elizabethan era are fully described below.

The Elizabethan Black Death
In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries victims of the Bubonic plague (Black Death) would be sealed in their houses. The houses would be locked and bolted from the outside. The victims were not allowed to leave and neither was anyone else allowed to enter. This action was tantamount to signing a death warrant for the whole family and one of the terrible consequences of the disease. Any victim of the Bubonic Plague or Black Death would have to obtain a ' Certificate of Health ' to resume normal life - if they recovered...

Information about the Role of the Watchmen and Death Cart Labourers
Watchmen were allocated to watch the ' plague houses ' and the only means of sustenance was for the victims to lower baskets from an upper window for the watchman to put food into it. Plague Pits were rapidly dug. These pits were approximately 20 feet deep - the width of the pit would continue to be extended as the outbreak of the Bubonic plague (Black Death)spread. A consequence of continued outbreaks was that even old Plague Pits were re-opened. The death cart labourers generally undertook their gruesome work at night and the bodies were hurried out of the house wrapped in any kind of improvised shroud.

Information about the Role of the Watchmen and Death Cart Labourers
The Elizabethan Watchmen and the death cart labourers were, not surprisingly, very well paid. But their gruesome job entitled them to  receive a good supply of alcohol. Their jobs were clearly life-threatening and there was a high mortality rate. There was no town cleansing department in the Elizabethan era. Month after month people were employed in this work, which became more and more difficult to accomplish as the plague spread and carried off one after another of the workers.  When, despite the high wages, no new men for this job could be found women and boys, especially those who had recovered from the Bubonic plague (Black Death), were forced to carry out this work. Threats of imprisonment were made as encouragement to undertake these tasks and this consequence was suffered by anyone who refused the role. In later years houses containing victims were sometimes indicated with a red cross painted on the door with the words "God have Mercy". The red cross acted as a warning as there was a time when the victims of the illness were not carried away to be buried or burnt.  The same deadly labour shortage continued until a medieval Physician had the idea was that the disease would be better contained by not throwing the bodies into the streets and into the approximation of other people. These corpses were left rotting in the houses until they were dragged out, weeks later, to be thrown on a cart and finally disposed of. Due to the food shortages and closure of businesses those who were not struck down by the Bubonic plague (Black Death) often resorted to stealing from the dead bodies. The penalties for this were varied and severe. Many such thieves were thrown into the pits, dead or alive, with their victims.

Information about the Spread of the Elizabethan Black Death or the Bubonic Plague in Elizabethan England
There were repeated outbreaks of the disease during the Elizabethan era and these outbreaks were often transmitted by the fleas that lived on rodents and animals, especially rats. Contrary to popular belief it was not just the people who lived in the towns who were at risk of catching the Black Death or Bubonic Plague. Elizabethan farmers and retailers of farm produce, such as animal hides, were in constant danger of contracting the Bubonic plague (Black Death) and this was a deadly consequence of their job. The disease could also be air bound and transmitted from an infected person's breath.  A devastating outbreak of the Elizabethan plague occurred in 1563 claiming 80,000 people in England. The cause of the Bubonic plague (Black Death) was unknown during the Elizabethan era so people were not in the position to take proper care or adequate precautions. Inadequate hygiene standards added to the problem and spread of the disease

Information about the Spread of the Black Death / Bubonic Plague in Elizabethan London
In 1563, in London alone, over 20,000 people died of the disease. This particular epidemic claimed between a quarter and a third of the total Elizabethan London population. Statistics show that 1000 people died weekly in mid August, 1600 per week in September, and 1800 per week in October. The Elizabethan City of London was filthy. It's population was growing continuously with poor people moving from the country to London in search of work. There was a total lack of a structured sewage system in Elizabethan London. All of the waste was just dumped into the River Thames. The River Thames is a tidal river and, as such, it would have acted like a natural sewer. But even so terrible epidemics of Black Death ( Bubonic Plague ) during the Elizabethan period still occurred. The spread was aided by the River Thames and its boats which were used as the major form of transport in Elizabethan London. The London streets were dark, narrow and dangerous and slow to travel through. Everyone used the river to move about and each London Elizabethan would have come into contact with the everyday presence of the dirt and the rats. A perfect vehicle for ensuring the spread of the disease in Elizabethan London. An Elizabethan London who did not understand how the Bubonic plague (Black Death) was spread...

Queen Elizabeth - Information about containing the Spread of the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan era
There was nowhere to hide from the disease and no one was safe, not even the monarch. Queen Elizabeth was terrified of the disease and implemented quarantine measures to try to ensure the safety of herself and her courtiers. When the Black Death ( Bubonic Plague ) broke out in London in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I moved her court to Windsor Castle where she erected gallows and ordered that anyone coming from London was to be hanged - so great was the fear of the plague and avoiding any spread of it to her court. Queen Elizabeth I also prohibited the import of foreign goods as a measure to prevent the spread of the disease to the Elizabethan court.

Information about the Closure of the Elizabethan Globe Theater due the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague
There were three very serious outbreaks of the diseasewhich led to the closure of all places of Elizabethan entertainment, including the Globe Theater. These occurred in 1593 , 1603 and 1608. The impact of closure must have been extremely frightening, not to mention the threat of the Black Death ( Bubonic Plague ) itself. There would have been no money coming into Theater companies and therefore no money for the Elizabethan actors. It would not have been certain when it would be safe for Theaters to re-open. And there would have been the constant fear of contacting the Black Death (Bubonic Plague ) or seeing friends and family dying from the deadly disease. The Elizabethan era was truly a dangerous time. The spread of the disease continued.

Information about the Symptoms of the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague
The symptoms associated with the disease  were, and are, painful swellings (bubos) of the lymph nodes. These swellings, symptoms of the deadly plague, would appear in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin. Victims also suffered a very high fever, delirium, the victim begins to vomit, muscular pains, bleeding in the lungs and mental disorientation. The illness also produced in the victim an intense desire to sleep, which, if yielded to, quickly proved fatal. It was no wonder that the Black Death or Bubonic Plague was so feared by the people of the Elizabethan era.

The Elizabethan Medical Treatment of the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague
The main reasons for the 14th century pandemic effect and spread of the virus was the poor hygiene and the massive number of infected rodents. The Bubonic  plague (Black Death) was always caught or spread from an infected animal or person. The victims would often die within two to four days. A frightening and swift end to life. A really effective medical treatment and cure for the Bubonic plague (Black Death) was impossible during the Elizabethan and later periods of history. Some elements of quarantine were introduced but usually by the time that this was instigated the deadly disease had already struck. Elizabethan Pesthouses were established, a few miles away from the infected areas, where the victims would be sent. But the spread of the disease  still continued...

Information about the Medical Profession during the Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan churches administered to the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) victims but very little other help was given and food was rarely distributed. Only the very wealthy would receive the ministrations of an Elizabethan Physician  who would have received an education at one of the Universities. There were Elizabethan surgeons, but these had a similar reputation to the barbers and the usual route that most people took was to visit the apothecary, or dispenser of drugs. The ' wise women ' in the Elizabethan community or some members of the Church were really the victims only hope for a medical treatment and cure of the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague. Any pictures of Physicians of the Elizabethan era look very strange and quite frightening. Elizabethan Physicians adopted protective costumes against the disease  in the 16th century. Elizabethan Physicians wore long dark robes with pointed hoods, leather gloves, boots, and the most bizarre masks featuring long beaks which were filled with bergamot oil. Amulets of dried blood and ground-up toads were worn at the waists of the Elizabethan Physicians. It was their custom to douse themselves with vinegar and chew angelica before approaching a victim. Although this might sound pointless today, these precautions would have protected the Elizabethan Physician. The bizarre and gruesome Physician masks would have acted as protection against contracting the disease through breathing the same air as the victim. The cover-all clothing would have protected the Elizabethan Physician from fleas and therefore the Black Death / Bubonic Plague.

Information about the Elizabethan Cure for the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague
In the Elizabethan era various concoctions of herbs were given and used for the medical treatment of different parts of the body and the varying symptoms of the disease.  Elizabethan medical treatment for head pains was with sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage, and bay. Medical treatment for stomach pains and sickness was with wormwood, mint, and balm. Lung problems given the medical treatment of liquorice and comfrey. Vinegar was widely used as a cleansing agent as it was believed that it would kill disease. Bloodletting, or cutting open the vein nearest the infected part of the body, was commonly thought to be one of the best ways to treat the illness. The blood that exuded was black, thick and vile smelling with a greenish scum mixed in it. The Bubonic  plague (Black Death) was the greatest fear of people living during the Elizabethan era from the Queen herself to the lowliest of her subjects. 

World and Medieval History of the Black Death and Bubonic Plague - How the disease spread and Nationalities affected
Black Death and Bubonic Plague -  Modern day symptoms, cure and medical treatment

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Information about the Black Death & Bubonic Plague
Symptoms, effects, consequences, cure and medical treatment
William Shakespeare Index
Plague / Black Death Index

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