Pestilential fevers, or, the Black Death

When the Black Death arrived in England in summer 1348, it had already hit China, middle Asia, the Crimea, and Sicily, and had begun moving inland to the rest of continental Europe.  The death rate varied from region to region, but it is probably fair to say that it ranged from about 12% to 66% of the population.  Some evidence points to the Black Death being the plague, a fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis; while other evidence suggests it was viral in origin.  Regardless of the cause, it was extremely infectious and caused upheaval for decades everywhere it hit.

Bernard de Gordon, in his Lilium medicinae, enumerates some signs of impending plague in the chapter entitled “Pestitential fevers.”  Each chapter in Lilium is divided into 6 sections: the first included the definitions, names, and types; the second, the causes; the third, the diagnosis; the fourth, the prognosis; the fifth, the treatment; and finally, the sixth – the clarification.  The following is a loose translation of a 1551 version of Lilium, from the second section of “Pestilential fevers.”


Cap[itulum] ix. De febribus pestilentialis f. 15v. Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.
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The Lily of Medicine

Bernard de Gordon finished his Lilium medicinae in 1305 at the University of Montpellier.  Lilium medicinae (literally, the lily of medicine) is his most well-known work.  It is an encyclopedia of diseases with their symptoms, causes, effects, and treatments; and includes plague, tuberculosis, scabies, epilepsy, anthrax, and leprosy.  Lilium survives in approximately 50 manuscripts (and numerous later, printed volumes) and was translated into French, German, and Hebrew in the 14th century, and Spanish and Irish in the 15th century.  It was considered required reading at Montpellier beginning in the early 1400s.


Front cover, Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.

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