A Christmas story

[Recycled from my first Christmas Idleblog, somewhat condensed.]


In the words of the modern carol, “All we want for Christmas is some extra-strength Tylenol,” and sure enough, our little sister brought some up to the High Doganate, “on Christmas Day in the morning.” Since then, the quality of life has much improved up here. We specified acetaminophen, and neither aspirin nor ibuprofen, since in our understanding the former alone would be of any use in masking the symptoms of a viral influenza. (Disclaimer: if you are taking medical advice from this website, you may already be beyond help.)

After just one gramme, the fever seemed abating, and the headache had almost disappeared. Nearly three grammes later (at intervals, not all at once, you fool!) I feel almost well enough to run out and catch pneumonia.

Indeed my first thought, is that we should start a charity, to ship Tylenol to the Middle Ages. Maybe include some penicillin and basic antibiotics in the care packages; with instructions for their use in easy, colloquial Latin. We’ve all heard dark stories about mediæval medicine. So why don’t we do something practical to help?

Already I imagine the wiseacre query of some insufferable progressive. “How you gonna send that, by Pur-o-lator?” How wantonly these people expose their own ignorance. The courier companies only serve current addresses. Mediæval Man is removed from us in time. Therefore Purolator can’t reach him. But that shouldn’t defeat an unwearying Yankee optimism. Instead, we could try digging down to the appropriate archaeological stratum, then leaving the boxes in conspicuous places. Common sense would supply locations: say, the medical schools at Parma, Padua, Bologna, Montpelier, Paris, or Oxford.


Perhaps, had our ancestors been more robust, we could have avoided modernity altogether; and stood a little better against other rude invaders, such as those plague-bearing Mongols.

For one of the little ironies of historical fact (as opposed to historical theories, which are just glib) is that nomadic barbarians often show a quicker understanding of “empirical science” than more civilized peoples, whose practised decency obstructs their “vision.” Indeed, it is because we are becoming nomadic barbarians ourselves, once again, that we are “following the science” better and better. Back in the day, we had “the greatest public health disaster in history.” It was called the Black Plague.

I refer to the Mongol siege of the Genoese trading colony of Caffa, in Crimea — in its heyday among the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. It welcomed alike Genoese and Venetians, Greeks and Armenians, Jews and Muslims from all over; even visitors from far Ethiopia, and Cathay. Too, every sort of Turk and Tartar who wandered the lonely Steppe. On his good days, the city enjoyed the contractual protection of the Khan of the Golden Horde, who derived considerable profit from it. On his bad days, however, it did not enjoy this.

To my backward, reactionary, and roughly mediæval mind — unshared with contemporary historical scholars — Caffa’s problems really began with a moral, as opposed to physical, “issue.” The city had a very prosperous slave market, which dealt mostly in Turkic slaves, sold chiefly to the Mameluke Sultans for use as soldiers. From a Genoese or Venetian point of view, this was all to the good, not only remunerative in itself but beneficent, since otherwise the Sultan would be enslaving Christians.

The Mameluke soldier slave, selected for his height and virility, enjoyed a fairly good life. As the Sultan’s henchman he had the right to bear arms, and show contempt to the general population, on behalf of the Sultan. (The despot’s first act is to withdraw the subject’s right to bear arms; for a half-armed subject is twice as obedient, and an unarmed one, entirely so.)

Slavery is intrinsically wrong, of course, but in this case expanding free trade also turned out to be a bad move, strategically. For it began to make the Mongols unhappy. They were indifferent when the slavers were capturing their own enemies, perhaps even mildly approving. But soon enough it came round to their friends being captured and led away. (Poor Italians probably couldn’t tell the difference.) And no Khan of the Golden Horde is remembered by history for his phlegmatic disposition.

Sultan happy, Khan unhappy, was moreover a bad formula, for the Sultan could offer little protection from an irritated Khan. Indeed, those free traders, in the 14th century, had to rely on a distantly stretched Italian navy. Not that this navy should be scorned: for contrary to the general understanding, Italian “marines” did a number on the Mongols several times, while operating far from home. Indeed, they lifted the first Mongol siege of Caffa at a cost of more than 15,000 lives, almost all of them Mongolian.

It was, however, the Mongols’ second siege that counted. Learning from Round One that they would need to up the ante, they suddenly re-appeared in 1345, in the usual Mongol way, from everywhere. They were as ever travelling fairly light, with quite brilliant equine manoeuvres. But the one, incredibly unlikely, flaw in such a large subscription of horsemen, announced itself. For at least one of the contributing exotic tribes was carrying the bacillus for the Bubonic Plague, which now began spreading through their entire ranks, initially to the joy of the besieged within Caffa.

As we hinted above, the native cunning of the barbarian is more use, in grasping the implications of new “science and technology,” than is the reasoning of civilized man, whose judgement is diffused by prudence. He cannot match the “noble savage” for ruthlessness. The Mongols quite spontaneously grasped the principles of biological warfare. They began catapulting the bodies of their own dead and dying over the city walls.

It was not long before Caffa was losing the battle of attrition. Survivors of the Plague began evacuating voluntarily, even as the Mongols were losing interest in their siege. Those Italian ships that had come to supply food to the besieged, were now carrying the Christians back to their home ports: to Venice, and Genoa, and all over Europe.

We have for instance the remarkable account of Gabriele de’ Mussi of the homecoming at Piacenza, where the Plague exploded instantly upon the travellers’ return. It includes an account of the cause, crisp enough to satisfy any epidemiologist. It uses apocalyptic language in a convincing way, and adds a touching lament on behalf of distant foreigners: “the Chinese, Indians, Persians, Medes, Kurds, Armenians, Cilicians, Georgians, Mesopotamians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Turks, Egyptians, Arabs, Saracens, and Greeks — for almost all the East has been affected.” (Gentle reader will note that the world news was more complete back then.)


To the mediæval mind, a Plague on such a scale must surely involve Divine Judgement. We retain the apocalyptic words, but their content has been discarded. We read these and accuse our ancestors of superstition. Yet they were hardly unaware of proximate cause, and had long understood the principle of infection. They could be quite attentive to the hard factuals, when they were seriously interested. All men have always been.

It is just that, being more humble and broad-minded than we have been (since the Enlightenment), they did not exclude the possibility of Divine Wrath. Nor the hope, should that be the cause, that they might still do something to assuage it; such as, earnestly repent of very real and terrible sins. They were certainly not so completely lacking in intelligence and dignity to run about shrieking, “Why why why?”

Consider: frequent private bathing, showering and washing especially hands and feet, were customary throughout the Middle Ages, in continuity from the ancient world. The old Roman systems of urban and rural sanitation had been, whenever possible, carefully restored; then gradually extended and improved upon. Episcopal condemnation of public bathing is often cited to refute this. It does nothing of the sort: for it was directed expressly against moral vices. Those fusty old bishops were acutely aware of what went on in bath houses — and of diseases spread not “through the water” but from sexual promiscuity.

It was rather in the Reformation era (on both Protestant and Catholic sides) that attention to washing was displaced by fastidious perfuming, and bathing went out of fashion. This, thanks to the early modern superstition that water, alone, could carry infections through the pores. Hence, at least partially, the reason for the frequent reappearance of devastating epidemics through the 17th century and beyond. Hence, as we have begun to establish from cumulative searching through parish records (we have Mormons to thank for much of this), the curious fact that life expectancy was substantially higher in the High Middle Ages than it ever was again until quite recent times. For as my mommy, a nurse, used to say, “Baby no wash, baby get sick.”

Mediaeval man was not nearly so stupid, nor superstitious, as we hold him to have been. His capacity for reasoning, in his circumstances, greatly exceeded our own in ours. Nor did he narrowly limit himself to making inferences based on “I feel.” Too, mediaeval man benefited tremendously from respect for his predecessors, and those of foreign cultures, unlike today. For as soon as we meet a furriner of any sort, we start lecturing him on how to acquire the bacillus of “progress.”

We remain, for instance, intellectually encumbered by a tremendous weight of foolish and malicious sectarian propaganda, adapted from Reformation pamphlets to our present irreligious need — which is to show how superior we are to our God-fearing ancestors. It still reduces our capacity to learn elementary things, that are not sectarian; to believe embarrassing, and totally implausible stuff, such as Darwinism. Our self-confidence, when buying into rubbish, is founded upon moronically false ideas about the past, such as “men believed the world was flat,” or “they had no idea of gravity,” or “they argued about how many angels would fit on the head of a pin,” or, “they thought they were at the centre of the universe” — when actually they thought they were at the bottom of it (except for Hell). They were entirely free of that chronological vanity that attributes every boon to some spooky “spirit of progress,” and hails itself in tireless fits of self-congratulation.

Mediæval man inherited astrological, alchemical, herbal, and other quackeries (along with things not quack) from their own pagan ancestors, including especially ancient Romans and Greeks; then sifted for the efficacious over long tracts of time. Their notions of the Four Humours were derived from Hippocrates, and Galen, and many other classical sources towards which they were, perhaps, too credulously respectful. They were open to Arabic and Oriental influences, not from osmosis but from conscious study. (This is why the motherlode of mediæval Islamic science and learning must now be sought in European libraries, where so much of it was preserved from destruction.) To error and prejudice they were, like all men, necessarily prone, but on nothing like our modern scale.


Our modern medical faculties descend from such medical schools as I mentioned above. Anatomy was studied with (Church-permitted) human dissections, and methods of surgery were advanced thereby. The use of clove and other herbal oils with anaesthetic properties was commonplace, along with methods of dressing and sterilizing wounds — whether or not on the correct germ theory. Monastic physic gardens were constantly exploring the properties and possibilities of medicinal herbs — goldmines of useful information lost and too often still awaiting rediscovery.

But beyond this the whole culture of medicine — the teaching colleges (in which it took ten years to become a doctor), the specialized hospitals and hospices for such as cripples and the blind, those for sick children, for women, for the elderly and infirm, for those afflicted with various chronic diseases; asylums for the mad, and for lepers; alms houses scattered everywhere; the dispensaries and surgeries for the poor which also distributed food and clothing to them; the networks of itinerant medical specialists; the guild systems to enforce quality controls — from where does gentle reader think all these things came?

Hint: all are from our own (intensely Catholic) Middle Ages.

Dead right, my dears! All without exception from that despised Mediaeval Church; and from her idle and corrupt clergy; her crazy brooding monks and nuns; and from her unique, scary dark theological notion that the universe makes sense. And from frightening, authoritarian popes — such as Innocent III, who at the dawn of the 13th century launched a “crusade” to provide every little town throughout Christendom, no matter how remote, with its own clinic (as distinct from “hospitals” for pilgrims, which themselves provided medical assistance, and other charitable care). Towns of a size that would be dismissed as villages today, some with towering cathedrals.

And all of this carried on the income of the great monastic houses, and by grand bequests and donations, and by guild and municipal charity and pride, and by voluntary labour, and by little old widows and grannies dropping their wee copper mites into small tiny boxes, and lighting candles for their beloved, in Purgatory — and yes, a portion through modest but compulsory tithes, waived for paupers. Compare: our sprawling Kafkaesque bureaucracies.

For as I once had to explain, to an aggressively anti-Christian television hostess:

“Have you ever noticed, Mademoiselle Sunshine, that more than half the hospitals in this fine secular burg were named after some Saint?”

(For some reason, she never invited me back.)

The city of Florence, population around 70,000 on the eve of the Black Death, had more than two dozen specialized hospitals. Three-quarters of these Florentines perished all the same (fun facts that happened to burn into my brain many summers ago while reading Boccaccio, and Villani). Too, from a long fascination with old city plans, I may confidently tell gentle reader that, wherever he wants to go in the later Middle Ages — to London, to Paris, to Naples, to Milan — that he will find eleemosynary institutions thicker on the ground than they are today. This remained true, incidentally, to the eve of the Great War in 1914 — a much greater concentration of “welfare dives,” conventual establishments, schools, colleges, and every other sort of humane institution, supported privately at a loss.


I am not restricted to defending the honour of mediæval man, though, nor interested in the view that his Middle Ages resembled Heaven at any point over their duration of more than a thousand years. The best we could say, for most of this long period, is that it formed a civilization that was morally, aesthetically, intellectually, and spiritually, superior to ours. But perhaps even better Christendoms are possible.