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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“A terrible pestilence”

Unfortunately for us, medieval manuscripts are not usually dated.  The Library is lucky to have one, Macer Floridus’ De virtutibus herbarum (1493, call no. 10a 159) in which the scribe has not only written the date it was completed, but also his name (check out this earlier blog post here).  The Library’s copy of Lilium medicinae is also dated: 20 June 1348, the day after the feast of Corpus Christi.  That’s 669 years ago, tomorrow.


Colophon, f. 256v. Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.

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