PandemicsIn the days when travel and tourism was allowed, I visited two historic sites in York that have a special resonance now. These were stones that were used in the time of Plagues to pay outsiders for food and other goods. The first one was the base of an old boundary marker cross with depressions in it where money was left immersed in vinegar. The second was a marker stone dating from the 14th century but used in the same way by plague victims who had been placed in isolation on Hob Moor just outside the city. Both were used in 1604-05 when a third of York’s citizens died of the plague.Bubonic plagues have occurred regularly since 430 BC with major outbreaks in this country that caused large numbers of deaths in 1347 and 1664. The plague was spread along trade routes and is now thought to have been transmitted by body lice and fleas as well as by touching contaminated surfaces and through breathed out droplets and aerosols. The symptoms were very unpleasant and included fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. Buboes or large swellings appeared on the neck, armpit and thighs of the patient. These were filled with blood and appeared black, hence the name the Black Death. It could act very quickly and people could be symptomless on one day but dead the next. Unlike Covid the prevalence was worse in hot humid weather and died down in winter when the fleas were less active.Medical knowledge was very limited and the treatments were often very ineffective. One was to perforate the bubo and put a heated glass cup over it so that the vacuum would draw out the puss and blood. This only resulted in the puss spreading the infection. Some measures that were taken may not have been based on medical knowledge but were nevertheless effective and have echoes in our response to Coronavirus. Infected houses in London had a red cross painted on the door and were left empty for forty days which was enough for any fleas inside to die. The house was then fumigated by burning saltpetre, brimstone and juniper which produced sulphur dioxide which modern experiments have shown kills fleas and lice. The walls were then painted with white limewash which we now know acts like an antibacterial spray. Plague doctors wore a mask with a bird like beak to protect them from what they called miasma or bad air. People also practiced social distancing. The ultimate example of this was the King and the court who, in 1665, moved first to Hampton court and then to Oxford. Guards were put on all entrances to the city so that no one could enter or leave. This travel ban ensured that Oxford stayed free of the plague. In the 1348 plague incoming ships were put into quarantine for forty days. The word quarantine comes from the Italian for forty days. Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses in London. Public places such as theatres were closed and thousands of cats and dogs that were thought to carry the plague were killed. The most famous example of self-sacrifice was the Derbyshire village of Eyam which had the plague brought to it in a bale of flea infested cloth from London. The villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves and although three quarters of the villagers died the plague was not spread to nearby towns. It is no consolation that there is nothing new under the sun.Julian Hewitt. Fordingbridge Museum
The stone with the road in the background shows the depression in which plague victims, housed on Hob Moor just outside York, left their money to pay for food and other necessities .The stone with the brick surround is on the road into York coming from theNorth. Both stones were used in the 1604-1605 plague when a third of York's citizens died.The coins were left in vinegar which they believed was a disinfectant.