Advices for Preventing and Curing Plague in Sixteenth- & Seventeen-Century England

Anne McKeithen, M.S.L.I.S.

Plague had devastated Europe's population in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the disease was still a dreaded condition with no known cure in the late sixteenth and early seventeen centuries. Many learned people in Tudor and Elizabethan England — doctors, apothecaries, scientists, philosophers, and theologians among them — had theories about what caused plague. According to some experts plague was a curse from God sent because of man's wickedness. Others said it came from "bad air" (miasma) that resulted from the improper alignment of the planets. These explanations, that often blamed God or supernatural causes, suggested cures not only for physical health but addressed moral or religious issues as well.i Some plague treatises harked back to a humoral system of balance and listed remedies that Galen could have prescribed. Even those who believed plague was a contagious condition might also have thought it was influenced by human moral failure or the planets' positions in the sky.ii Not until the end of the seventeen century did scholars in England begin to detect a contradiction between thinking of disease as caused by both miasma and contagion.iii Simultaneous claims for natural and supernatural causes were useful because they could more easily account for variables in plague outbreaks than could one or another explanation alone. Suggesting that religious failures might lead to disease also reaffirmed conventional morality. If sin caused serious physical illness, public officials could restrain certain activities (such as frequenting prostitutes) and keep citizens' behavior under tighter control.iv

If the causes of plague were many, the cures and preventives were ample as well. Printing had become a fairly cheap, simple, and fast means of communicating, and printed tracts, which gave advice on plague management, became widespread in middle class households. Though some pamphlets claimed to have been written for "the meaner sort," there is no evidence today to show that low-income people took advantage of them.v Common to these booklets were lists of ingredients and directions for making medicines for internal or topical use, as well as recipes for herbal mixtures to purify the air. Many tracts listed the names and addresses of apothecaries who stocked certain mixtures or would make them upon request. For example, William Kemp of London wrote in 1665 that "Any may make these medicines themselves or bespeak them at the apothecaries, or may buy them ready made at Mr. John Danson's at the Sign of the Pestle & Mortar in Coleman's Street or at Mr. Hammet Rigbies' at the Seven Stars in Fetter Lane."vi

Advices often discussed remedies for both the body and the soul and some prescribed cures for pestilence caused by misaligned planets. In Hyperphysicall directions in the time of plague [1644], Lionel Gatford suggests an allegorical "cure" for plague which seems to show itself as a humoral imbalance: "A pretty quantity of Rubarb of Patience, infused with wine of cheerfullnesse on the fire of Tryall [trial] is approvedly good for purgeing of all cholericke and melancholy humors."vii Other sources provided biblical references in the margins: "Whatsoever garments are put on, let them be perfumed with some of that myrrhe, aloes and Cassia [Cinnamomum cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon], whereof our Savior's Garments are said to smell; that is, with humiliation, mortification, righteousness, and other Graces ...."viii

Often one tract contradicted another, for example, either invoking the use of arsenic amulets or warning against it. Much of the advice was conservative and old-fashioned. One London broadside printed in 1603 has been identified as a 40 year-old reprint from France, yet it would be hard to distinguish it from others of the early seventeen century.ix The most recommended medicines were Galenic antidotes commonly known as treacle and mithridatium. These supposedly contained viper's flesh, believed strong enough to kill plague's "poison." But by the early seventeen century the College of Physicians had ruled "that treacle need not contain vipers at all," and there were numerous compounds sold under these names for treating plague.x

Some remedies or directions for controlling plague might seem like sound advice to modern readers, although they are most often coupled with other advice that moderns would likely question. When visiting the sick, Francis Herring advises that one carry branches of herbs, open the windows, and hold cloves in the mouth. Afterwards he suggests you "wash your hands and face with rose-vinegar and water."xi He had other ideas of how to avoid spreading disease in London: "There should be provided a place for the bodies of such as die of the sickness some good distance from the city and suburbs."xii He further observed that burying the dead in the churchyard at St. Paul's, where the chief magistrates met weekly to hear sermons, was not only inconvenient, but dangerous for spreading contagion. In addition he warned that streets should be kept clear of animal carcasses and feces and the newly laid pipes from the Thames should be opened often to "cleanse the channels of every street in the city."xiii

Advice about entertaining visitors was contradictory. Some suggested it proper to visit those who were sick, but inviting guests to one's home could be helpful or disastrous, as Gatford wrote: "To entertain, especially in times of distress, is an excellent meanes of preservation to a whole family, for thereby some have entertained Angels unawares and those such angels as have preserved them and theirs from universall destruction ... Yet tis good to beware whom thou entertainest, lest otherwise thou chance to entertaine Devils in the forme of Angels."xiv Rich folk were admonished that fleeing the city to avoid disease would not work unless they fled their sins as well. Further, one should fly "from such persons and places as are infected," but not in an attempt to avoid helping to pay for and support those in the community who are ill with the plague.xv In addition, "the richer sort if they regard their health, should make themselves fuming candles or cakes of mercy and almes to the poore."xvi One must "be carefull to avoyd and not to come neare the way of the Rebell, the way of the whore, the way of the blood-thirsty, the way of the covetous and the way of the Idolater."xvii Furthermore "do not go out in the morning without first praying; wash thy mouth every morning with fountaine or spring water wherein [one has soaked] Sage, especially of Jerusalem (and keep your mouth cleane from all swearing). Be not abroad too late at night; for the pestilence itself walketh in darkness ...."xviii


(Please note that because the subsequent number of quotes from Orders thought Meete ... is extensive, they have been updated to modern-day English to facilitate the reader's comprehension.)

The Privy Council under Elizabeth 1 of England set forth orders that attempted to regulate the movement of those stricken by plague, to give care to those who were ill, and to provide for the burial of those who died of the disease. These new orders concentrated on halting the spread of disease and relied less on the once popular theory of miasma (bad air). The Privy Council directed the orders be printed in November 1578. They consisted of two parts: 1) a group of seventeen regulations intended to instruct local magistrates on their duties in controlling and preventing the spread of the pestilence; and 2) An Advice set down ... by the best learned in Physic within this Realm, containing sundry good rules and easy medicinesxix which were written by the College of Physicians.

The Plague Regulations

The Privy Council under Elizabeth I set out 17 regulations in the first part of Orders thought meete ... for local magistrates to follow in preventing and containing plague. Here is a rough paraphrase of those orders:
1. Justices of all counties are to assemble at a place free of infection to consult on how these orders may be executed.
2. First, justices should inquire as to which towns and villages are infected; then, how many are infected; and what wealth there is in each town to help determine how to relieve the poor who are infected. Finally, those infected should be confined to their houses.
3. Then the justices should make a taxation within each infected town; by charging either one gross sum for all persons or by charging only special persons of wealth. If that amount is not sufficient, then justices are to extend taxation to adjoining places or towns.
4. Justices must appoint persons to view bodies of those who die so that before the burial they may certify to the minister and churchwarden of what disease those persons died. Also justices must pay a weekly allowance to those who perform this service. Persons chosen are sworn to make a true report. The choice of persons should be made by the curate of the church along with three or four substantial men of the parish. If those chosen refuse to serve, or give false testimony, imprison them as a lesson to others.
5. If someone dies of plague or it is known someone is sick with it, shut up his house for five weeks after sickness has ceased or the person has died. In towns, adjoining houses must be shut in the same manner. If in the country, those who are ill, or those from houses of the ill, even if they must leave their houses to care for their animals or their crops, must refrain from going into the company of others, except wearing a mark on their clothes or bearing white rods if they go abroad. Justices should appoint night watchmen to see that infected houses do not allow persons in or out. Punishment for disobedience is the stocks. Special marks are to be fitted on the doors of infected houses. When infection occurs at inns and ale houses, signs are to be removed and crosses or a mark set up in place, as a token of the sickness.
6. Justices should choose honest persons to collect tax and take care of poor sick, providing them with food, fire, and medicine.
7. Justices should appoint persons to take food and necessities to the sick — they must wear a mark or carry rods to identify themselves.
8. In each town justices should make provisions for preservatives and remedies bespoke and made to be distributed without great cost.
9. Ministers and churchwardens must report each week the number of the sick that do not die and the number who do die. These deaths and causes should be certified to the rest of the justices of the assembly. This information must be kept in a special book.
10. Justices should appoint a place in each parish for burial. Bury the dead after sunset.
11. Justices of the whole county are to meet every 21 days to see whether these orders are duly executed and must notify the Privy Council of what they find.
12. Justices in the hundred (a district or part of a county) are to meet once a week where any infection is, to see if orders are being followed. They are to take problems into their own hands or report them to the general assembly.
13. After anyone dies of plague, all clothes and bedding are to be burned or handled as physicians require in the Advices.
14. If the justices devise new directives, they must be set in writing and distributed. If anyone knowingly disobeys, they will be imprisoned or made known to Her Maiestie and or her Privy Council.
15. If there is a lack of justices, none need be appointed.
16. If any ecclesiastical or lay person says or writes that it is uncharitable to forbid the visiting of the infected, pretending no person shall die until his time, such persons shall be apprehended; and if in ecclesiastical orders, he shall be forbidden to preach; if lay, he shall be forbidden to utter such dangerous opinions on pain of imprisonment.
17. Justices need take great care because without these directives, plague may increase.

The Advices set down by the College of Physicians (London) seem to come from many sources. Often there are minimal differences from one remedy to another. Recipes for cleansing the air and for special mixtures that one might hold against one's nose are numerous, but they rely on a few stock herbs, mostly familiar today.

Among the recipes for air cleansers are the following: "Preservative by correcting the air in Houses. Take Rosemary dried, or Juniper, Bayleaves, or Frankincense, cast the same on a Chafing dish, and receive the fume or smoke thereof: Some advise to be added Lavender, or Sage."xx Another explains how to "better correct the air of the Houses" by burning wood: "Also to make fires rather in pans, to remove about the Chamber, than in Chimneys."xxi Another uses herbs and vinegar heated: "Take a quantity of Vinegar very strong, and put to it some small quantity of Rosewater, ten branches of Rosemary, put them all into a basin, then take five or six Flintstones, heated in the fire till they be burning hot, cast them into the same Vinegar, & so let the fumes be received from place to place in your house."xxii

A preservative for the poor advises: "... take a handful of Rue, and as much common Wormwood, and bruise them a little; and put them into a pot of Earth or Tin, with so much Vinegar as shall cover the herbs: keep this pot close covered or stopped, and when you fear any infection, dip into this Vinegar a piece of a sponge, and carry it in your hand and smell to it, or else put it into a round ball [a container] of Ivory or Juniper made full of holes of the one side, carrying it in your hand use to smell thereunto, renewing it once in a day."xxiii

One's clothing should be clean and aired, especially if there should be contact with an infected person. You could also keep well by perfuming your clothes: "... perfume it often either with some red Saunders burned, or with Juniper."xxiv The Advices continue, "It is good in going abroad into the open air in the streets, to hold some things of sweet savor in their hands, or in the corner of a handkerchief, as a sponge dipped in Vinegar & Rosewater mixed, or in Vinegar, wherein Wormwood, or Rue called also Herb-grace, hath been boiled."xxv

Remedies in the Advices include medicines taken internally to prevent plague as well as remedies for those already sick. Here is a "Preservative by way of inward medicine: Take a quantity of Rue, or Wormwood, or of both, and put it into a pot of usual drink, close stopped, let it lie so in steep a whole night, and drink thereof in the morning fasting."xxvi

Galenic mixtures, often called cordials, were prescribed in different formulas for men and women, and in variants for children, pregnant women, and those with delicate constitutions. "For women with child, or such as be delicate and tender, and cannot away with taking of medicines. Make a toast of white or of the second bread, as you think good, and sprinkle on it being hot a little good wine vinegar, made with Rose leaves, and for want of it any good common or used vinegar, & spread on the toast a little butter, and cast thereon a little powder of Cinnamon, and eat it in the morning fasting. The poor which can not get vinegar nor buy Cinnamon, may eat bread and Butter alone, for Butter is not only a preservative against the plague, but against all manner of poisons."xxvii

Summer and winter recipes differed as well. "In all Summer plagues, it shall be good to use Sorell sauce to be eaten in the morning with bread, And in the fall of the leaf to use the juice of Barberries with bread also."xxviii Many standard Galenic cures — bloodletting, administering purgatives, and suppositories — find their places in the Advices as well, along with directions and recipes.

The Advices contain several recipes for salves or "outward medicines," as they are called, to be rubbed onto spots or sores on the skin: "Take of Scabious two handfuls, stamp it in a stone mortar with a pestle of stone if you can get any such, then put unto it of old swine's grease salted, two ounces, and the yolk of an egg, stamp them well together, & lay part of this warm to the sore."xxix Another is "Take of the leaves of Mallows, of Chamomile flowers, of either of them a handful, of Linseed beaten into powder two ounces, boil the Mallow leaves first cut, and the flowers of the Chamomile in fair water standing above a fingers breadth, boil all them together until all the water almost be spent: then put thereunto the Linseed, of Wheat flower half a handful, of swine's grease the skins taken away iii. ounces, of oil of Roses two ounces, stir ... with a stick, and let them all boil together on a soft fire without smoke, until the water be utterly spent, beat them all together in a mortar, until they be well incorporated together, & in feeling smooth, & not rough: then make part thereof hot in a dish set upon a chafing dish of coals, & lay it thick upon a linen cloth applying it to the sore."xxx

Orders thought meete ... was reprinted several times in the late sixteenth century and more than once in the seventeenth century, and was not replaced by new directives until 1666. Plague advice stayed much the same up through the Great Plague of London (1665), and the recipes in the Advices varied little from other plague tracts readily available in England. In 1593 Thomas Thayre wrote: "If you have any windows towards the North, or northeast, keepe them open in cleare days, your Chamber ought also to bee perfumed oftentimes, and with the perfumes taught in this book; you may use Juniper, Benjamin [spicebush], Storax [Styrax officinalis] and Wood of Aloes."xxxi From Francis Herring in 1625: "Let men in their private houses amend the aire by placing in their windowes sweete herbes, as Marjoram, Time, Rosemarie, Balme, Fennell, PeniRoyall, Mints, etc. Likewise by burning Juniper, Rose-marie, Time, Bay-leaves, Cloves, Cinamon, or using other compound perfumes. The poorer sort may burne Worme-wood, Rue, Time. Let them cast often on the floores of their houses water mingled with vineger." And finally, Lionel Gatford in 1665 writes that parishoners should not refrain from going to church where there may be infection, "rather go armed with inward and outward antidotes and preservatives, taking with thee thy Bible in thy hand and something in thy pyres or pocket for the poore."xxxiii


  1. Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England, London, Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1985, 26.
  2. Slack, Impact of Plague, 28.
  3. Slack, Impact of Plague, 28.
  4. Slack, Impact of Plague, 29.
  5. Slack, Impact of Plague, 33.
  6. T.D. Whittet, The Apothecaries in the Great Plague of London 1665, Sydenham Lecture to the Society of Apothecaries, London: Society of Apothecaries, 1965, 17.
  7. Lionel Gatford, [Logos alexipharmikos or] Hyperphysicall directions in the time of plague, Oxford: Printed by H. Hall, 1644, 17.
  8. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 17.
  9. Slack, Impact of Plague, 24.
  10. Slack, Impact of Plague, 31.
  11. Francis Herring, Certaine Rules, Directions, Or Advertisments for this time of Pestilentiall Contagion, London: Thom. Iones, 1625, reprinted as #527, The English Experiment, its Record in Early Printed Books published in facsimile, New York: 1973, B1.
  12. Herring, Certain Rules, A5.
  13. Herring, Certain Rules, A5.
  14. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 11.
  15. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 11.
  16. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 15.
  17. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 18.
  18. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 20.
  19. Orders thought Meete by her Maiestie and her Priuie Councell ... [London]: Imprinted at London by Christopher Barker, Printer to the Queenes most excellent Maiestie, [1578?].
  20. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 1.
  21. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 1.
  22. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 1.
  23. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 6.
  24. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 2.
  25. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 2.
  26. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 1.
  27. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 5.
  28. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 2.
  29. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 12.
  30. Orders thought Meete, Advices, 13.
  31. Thomas Thayre, A Treatise of the Pestilence, London: E. Short, 1603, 25.
  32. Herring, Certain Rules, A6.
  33. Gatford, Hyperphysicall, 19.
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