a medieval manuscript illumination of people burying plauge victims

A Fourteenth-Century Plague Treatise, Part 1

[Image above: plague victims buried in Tournai, from the Annals of Gilles de Muisit (c. 1349)]


The short piece that I translate below was one of the most popular plague treatises circulated in medieval Europe after the outbreak of the Black Death in 1347-1349. It exists in at least couple different versions and three languages (English, French, and Latin). The various versions identify the author as “John of Burgundy” (aka John of Bordeaux, John de la Barbe, and John Mandeville), which is about all we know about him, unfortunately. John of Burgundy’s treatise served as a foundation for similar medical texts in the early modern period.1

Because John of Burgundy’s text was so widespread in the medieval manuscript tradition, other editions and translations have been printed. The following text seems to be an abridged translation of Burgundy’s text, very similar to one that appears in the fifteenth-century Thornton Manuscript.2 I discovered the text printed here while browsing through a digitized miscellany in Harvard Library’s collections identified as Collectanea medica and dated to ca. 1450 (browse it online here; the text in question starts at seq. 89 (f. 43r.)).3 (For readers who aren’t medievalists, notes like f. 43r refer to the folio number in the manuscript — rather like a page number in a modern text, with r and v indicating recto/verso, or the front/back of a leaf.)

I’m printing this as a medievalist, herbalist, and someone interested in the history of medicine. I figured others might be similarly intrigued. Since this is a blog, what follows is not a critical edition of this text. There are surely some errors or imperfect choices, either in my Middle English transcription or modern English translation. My aim here is simply to reproduce the text as best I can in a short time and put it out there.

A final word of caution. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t blindly follow medical advice from the fourteenth century. But it is interesting to compare these ideas to modern theories about health and sickness (note the idea below of the infectious or “venomous” air entering through the pores). I’ll start with my translation of the first chapter and then append the original Middle English transcribed from the manuscript beneath that. (Links in the Middle English connect to definitions in the Middle English Dictionary for those interested in my choices.)

snippet from a medieval manuscript


Here begins a noble treatise written by a good physician, John of Burgundy, for medicine against the evil pestilence. It is divided into four chapters. The first tells how a man can protect himself during a pestilence so that he doesn’t fall into that disease. The second tells how this sickness comes about. The third tells [about] medicine [that’s useful] against this disease. The fourth tells how he [who is infected] shall be cared for during it.

This clerk [i.e. John of Burgundy] says in the first chapter that men often fall into this sickness due to a lack of proper restraint and diet in food and drink; therefore, when the pestilence is present in an area, the man who desires to be safe from that disease must avoid extravagance and excess in food and drink. Nor should he take baths or sweat too much, for these open the body’s pores and cause the infected air to enter and destroy man’s vital spirits and weakens the body. And above all [avoid] practicing lechery, for that both weakens the constitution and opens the pores so that the wicked air may enter and infect man’s [vital] spirits.

Also at this time avoid fruits unless they’re sour, and use none or but a little of these: garlic, onions, leeks, and other such foods that bring a man into unnatural heat/fever.4 Also do not allow yourself to thirst overmuch at this time. And if you thirst greatly, see that you drink moderately to quench your thirst and heat. And the best drink is cold water mixed with vinegar or barley-water, for that kind of drink is very good for those who are choleric of complexion, for they are hot and dry and typically lean of body.

Middle English Text Transcription

[f 43r] Here begynnyth a noble tretys made of a gode [f 43v] ph[i]sician John of Burdeux for medycyne ageyne the pestilense evill. And it is departid in foure chapitres. The first tellith hou a man shall kepe hym in tyme of pestilense that he fall nat into that evill. The iid tellith hou this sekenes coomyth. The thrid tellith medicyn agen this evill. The foourth tellith hou he shall be kepte in hit

This clerk saith in the first chapitre that for defaute of gode reulyng & dietyng in mete & drynk men fallen often into this sekenesse therefor whan the pestilense reyneth in countre the man that will be kept from that evill hym nedith to kepe [f. 44r] hym from outrage & excesse in mete & drynk nor use no batthis no swete not to mych ffor all these openeth the porys of the body & makith the venemous aire to entre & distroith the lyfly spiritis in man & enfeblith the body & souereynly hauntyng of lechery for that both enfeblith the kynde & openeth the poors that the wikkid aire may entre & envenym the spiritis of man [The Thornton manuscript version repeats this last clause in Latin: “et super omnia alia nocet coitus & accelerat ad hunc morbum quod maxime aperit poros & destruit spiritus vitales”]

Also vse litill that tyme fruites but yif that bee soure fruites & litill or nought of these: garlyk onyons leekis or othir such metis þ[a]t bryngith a man into vnkyndly hete. Also suffir not gretly [f. 44v] thu[r]st that tyme. And yif thou thirst gretly looke thou drynke but mesurably to slake thi thurst & the hete. And the best drynk were colde watir mengid with vynegre or tysanne for þ[a]t man[re] of drynk is right gode namly[?] to tham that be coloryk of complexion for they are hote & drye & comonly lene of body.

  1. For more on these, see George R. Keiser, “Two Medieval Plague Treatises and their Afterlife in Early Modern England” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol. 58.3 (2003): 292-324.
  2. Specifically the Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript; see pp. 51-54 in Margaret Sinclair Ogden’s EETS edition (Oxford UP, 1938, repr. 1969). I refer to this text below for a few additions.
  3. For more on this version of John of Burgendy’s treatise, see p. 94 in The Index of Middle English Prose Handlist IX: A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Prose in the Ashmole Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford. Ed. L. M. Eldredge. (D. S. Brewer, 1994).
  4. The Middle English Dictionary elaborates on the word hēte: “an unhealthy heat in an organism caused by fever, putrefaction, etc.”

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