September 10, 2022

A Plague Constant: Disease and Conspiracy in the Early Modern Period and Today

Article link copied.

slide image

Illustration by: Elizabeth Bronstein

In December of 1664, King Charles II observed a comet pass through the clear night sky of London.

Like many monarchs of his time, he was fascinated by astronomy, later in his reign going so far as to commission the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He saw the comet as a sign of change, change that could possibly affect him as well. The worry appeared to be justified, as following various civil wars, the restoration of the monarchy happened only four years prior, in 1660.

In July of 1665, the King would flee the city in fear of pestilence, and some members of court would believe the comet to have been the harbinger of the event. According to the credulous, the fact it passed over London was no mere coincidence, but rather an omen of the plague that followed soon after.

Though not in the king’s circle, one notable who also saw portents in the comet was John Milton. Following the Great Plague and the Great Fire, he wrote in the second book of Paradise Lost:

Unterrifi’d, and like a Comet burn’d, That fires the length of Ophiucus huge In th’ Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes Pestilence and Warr.

Such inclusions of natural phenomena in art, often intertwined with supernatural elements, are of course, not exclusive to the Great Plague of London. Memories of the Black Plague in the 14th century lingered; outbreaks across the continent, such as that of Milan in 1449, led artists to create works incorporating natural phenomena the epidemics brought with them, death. One example is Michael Wolgemut’s 1493 woodcut, Danse Macabre.

Celestial portents and macabre paintings aside, London, a city of more than half a million people, was never truly free of the Black Plague. Cases appeared here and there, sparking into epidemics over and over. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was reportedly closed down multiple times due to various late outbreaks, such as in 1603.

At least 10,000 cases of plague were reported in 1625, 1640, and 1646, with the outbreak of 1625 so large that the populace referred to it as the Great Plague. This title held until 1665, when its death toll was overtaken by the Great Plague known in history today, an outbreak during which nearly a quarter of the population of London died.


Illustration by: Elizabeth Bronstein

Records from the Great Plague of 1665, show us the range of beliefs sprouted due to the devastation caused by such disease. One such was the fear caused by the omen of the spotted falling star, but people soon sought other ways of explaining the pandemic.

Dating back to the 2nd century, Galen’s ideas about the four humours, black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegma, was most often combined with Hippocrates’ miasma theory, creating the Galenic school medicine. It dealt with matters of unclean air and counteracting the plague with aromatherapy and bloodletting.

It is this school of thought that brought into existence plague doctor masks, popular culture most commonly associated with the Black Plague, though they most often appeared in Italy. These masks featured exaggerated proboscises, which could be filled with fragrant herbs or flowers to keep noxious odours away.

One adherent of the Galenic school was 17th-century plague doctor Nathaniel Hodges. He became well-known, not only for his dedication to his trade, but also his denunciation of the predictions of astrologers and for his pragmatism, rejecting any theories he personally found to be ineffective.

In addition to Galenism, Hodges employed some methods that were in line with Paracelsianism, building off of the works of an 16th-century Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus.

Paracelsus, who himself derived much from Galen’s theories, believed how appropriate combinations of herbs, liquids, and sometimes even metals, most notably mercury, could be used to cure people. This process of chemical medicine, rapidly being inspired in many areas by alchemy, was dubbed iatrochemistry.

One example of these medical practices was Hodges’ daily routine, which began each day by drinking a mixture of “the green rind of the walnut, figs and plums macerated in vinegar, Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), Contrayerva (rhizome of Dorstenia), Butterbur (Petasites) and White Turmeric (zedoary), sugar, juice from the scale insect Kermes vermilio, syrup of marigold, clove oil and gold leaf”.

The formula he drank was thought of by Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a Swiss physician who worked at the previous King James the I’s Royal Court.

Later during most days of his work, he would attempt to further increase immunity by drinking Sack, a fortified white wine that was imported from Spain or the Canary Islands.

Unfortunately, the yersinia pestis bacterium responsible for the disease, could hardly be counteracted with such methods.

Although the first hypothesis akin to the Germ Theory we know and use today was put forward by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546, it was far from being the dominant idea at the time.

However, a glimpse of its development could be seen in some areas of treatment. For example, the aforementioned Hodges attempted to observe “little worms” that he suspected might be causing the illness, basing this belief on works of Jesuit priest Anthanius Kircher, who posed such a theory in 1658 during an outbreak in Rome.

Yet, this theory hardly explained the transmission of the disease between people. Instead, alongside the bad air proposed as harmful by Galenic Theory, the people believed the true vector of disease to be rats. They were not entirely wrong, as rats were the host animal for the fleas now understood to be the actual vector.

But this fear of rats, and probable connections of rats with plague, did not help with fighting the disease, and so other theories developed, with various new protocols and remedies proposed. Things such as a 40-day quarantine were implemented, as people turned to alternative solutions.

Mentioned in this article:

A collection of seven and fifty approved receipts good against the plague ; Collection of seven and fifty receipts good against the plague ; taken out of the five books of that renowned Dr. Don Alexes Secrets, for the benefit of the poorer sort of people of these nations

by W. J., gent. (1471-1665)

Some more curious remedies can be found in a compendium put together by W. J., gent. The target audience was the poor populace most affected by the plague. Those with the funds to do so, such as noblemen and successful tradesmen, escaped the city. In fact, the famous administrator of the Royal Navy, Samuel Pepys, wrote in his diary that he had “never lived so merrily” (1665).

Yet, the desperate condition of the common people led to the multiplication of beliefs we hold as odd today. These recipes most often included a variety of plants, berries, and the like, being called miraculous solutions. Effects would include miraculous healing, the boils caused by the infection to disappear.

For instance, Chapter 31 of the previously mentioned correction reads:

An approved composition as well to preserve as to heal, very good in the time of a contagious Plague.

Take an Ounce of the best Triacle, half an Ounce of the juce of Lemons, a Scruple of Saforne, a little of the two sorts of Pearls, Red Corall and Sorrell Feed, of each half a dram two grains of Camphere, mingle all these together very well with two or three drops of Odeferious white wine, and make thereof an ointment, spread a quantity thereof upon a piece of Crimson silke lay this hot upon the patients heart and remove it morning and evenning.

The Galenic origins of this recipe are easy to spot. “Saforne” refers to the spice called saffron, which is known to have an earthy smell, while “Red Corall” most likely refers to a species of heuchera genus. From this, as well as the additions of lemons and white wine, we can deduce that the final concoction is also meant to produce a pleasant smell that wards the patient from plague.

The common people, desperate for any sort of remedy, turned first to religion and then to such recipes. These proved to be of questionable effectiveness, but the plague nevertheless eventually began to die down. It finally ended a few years after the Great Fire of London swept through the city from the 2nd to the 6th of September in 1666 with cases fading out in the 1670s.

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, not quite four hundred years after the Great Plague ended, a self-described Shaman of QAnon, Jake Angeli, was preparing to storm the U.S. Capitol building. During this time, COVID-19 was still raging, and yet, those who would soon storm the Capitol donned no masks.

slide image
slide image
slide image
  • Capital Riots, US, January 6, 2021

    Bill Bryan

  • Capital Riots, US, January 6, 2021

    Picture by: Bill Bryan

  • Capital Riots, January 6th, 2021

    Picture by: Bill Bryan

  • The former sailor turned shaman was in his 30s, having served two years in the Navy achieving the rank of Storekeeper Seaman Apprentice. After being discharged by the Navy in 2007 for refusing the anthrax vaccine, he self-published two books. The first was entitled Will & Power: Inside the Living Library (2017), and the second, One Mind at a Time: A Deep State of Illusion (2020).

    A month later, he could be found outside Covid-19 testing facilities in Arizona yelling “Covid-1984 is a globalist propaganda hoax!”, and “You [Americans] are giving away your inalienable rights to a globalist media and a globalist corrupted government!”

    Alongside his belief that COVID-19 was a hoax, he also believed Donald Trump had in fact won the 2020 presidential election. In addition to this, he subscribed to the QAnon conspiracy theory that started on 4chan in 2017.

    Similarly, to many others who believed in it, he linked Donald Trump to the mysterious Q. The conspiracy theory eventually coalesced in a far-right movement facilitating the distrust of government institutions and officials. The central belief of the theory was that there existed a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic, sexual abusers of children who were trying to remove Trump from office.

    While Angeli’s views reflect those of the far right-wing fringe in America, they came to the attention of the wider media sphere when found alongside other insurrectionists in front of the Capitol, storming the building in support of Donald Trump’s re-election.

    Trump’s polarising personality contributed to the proliferation of these such conspiracy theories, many of which dealt with the health of the nation facing the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, aspersions Trump cast on Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, contributed to him being seen as a malicious figure by some.

    Instead of heeding Fauci’s advice and recommendations, many Trump supporters leaned towards unproven treatment, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which Trump and his political circle promoted.

    Where once, futile “remedies” consisting of herbs and alcohol were touted by nobles and doctors as panaceas against plague, now unproven COVID-19 cures sprouted up like weeds around the U.S. president.

    Mentioned in this article:

    JAMA Internal Medicine

    Association of County-Level Prescriptions for Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin with County-Level Political Voting Patterns in the 2020 US Presidential Election

    by Barnett et al, 2022

    The political link between such treatments and the supporters of Donald Trump is demonstrated in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, in 2022. The investigators demonstrate an undeniable link between voting patterns and the prescription of controversial drug therapies, with the rate of prescription being higher in Republican counties following the FDA’s revocation of its emergency use authorisation of them.

    Around a month after the release of this study, the President and his son both shared videos of doctors on Twitter and Facebook promoting use of the two aforementioned drugs. The videos were removed by both social media companies, but not before over 17 million people managed to view them.

    Donald Trump and those who supported him were at odds with the likes of the CDC and Dr. Fauci, rejecting the recommendations of experts to wear masks and quarantine. And, though Trump left office, the trend toward viewing the health crisis in purely political terms continued. Florida, led by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, prided itself by loosening COVID-19 restrictions. In January of 2020, this led to an increase in COVID-19 cases of around 566%, which the DeSantis administration subsequently denied.

    Though curious ideas concerning medical treatment sprout today, in a manner not too dissimilar from those prevalent during the Great Plague, the focus in current times is much more political.

    Given COVID-19’s much wider range, many more have died than during the Great Plague of London – over a million (in the US alone) compared to around 100,000 in the 1600’s. However, the milder symptoms of COVID-19, and the pandemic’s wide geographical area has contributed to shaping public discourse and beliefs along political lines, rather than in accordance with the guidance of global health organisations.

    Today, as during the Great Plague of London, some of those holding office have put forward questionable remedies that are said to be more effective than mainstream treatments. As during outbreaks of plague, when recipes we now know to be ineffective were used in a desperate gamble to stave off infection, alternative and untested remedies continue to be endorsed by those in power.

    But how has this happened despite almost four hundred years of medical and scientific advancement?

    Whether it be about the medicinal properties of an herb, or the variable use of existing drugs, humanity remains uncomfortable with unknowns, and are apt to turn to figures of authority to quell our discomfort. When we are faced with something beyond our expertise, we ask those whom we expect to provide us a satisfying answer. If their responses are deemed unsatisfactory, however, we seek out others with answers that align with our own biases.

    This search often extends to the arena of politics, where our choice to follow a president, priest, doctor, or king, becomes a signifier of our broader social and political beliefs.

    Despite the changes society has undergone since the early modern period, and the scientific advancements which have uncovered the mysteries of yersinia pestis’ structure on a nearly molecular level – we as a species, still continue to search deeper.

    Our fervent wish to understand our world and how everything connects, even the falling star in the sky. This coupled with shortcomings in our individual and collective understanding, makes us vulnerable to theories which reflect our own assumptions.

    Human curiosity propels us to attempt to explain whatever may trouble us. Sometimes – often in times of great stress – these explanations are inadequate. Pandemics come and go, but this nature stays with us.

    Written by:


    Zachary Maurycy Górka

    Fiction Section Editor

    Warsaw, Poland

    Born in 2004, in Wejherowo, Poland, Zachary Maurycy Górka is completing his Politics, Sociology, Economics, and Polish A-Levels. He specialises in areas of economic diplomacy and the history of leftism in Europe.


    Create an account to continue reading

    A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

    You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.