Plague, Politics, and Poltergeist

Happy Halloween or Samhain for all you medieval enthusiasts. In honor of the spookiest night of the year, I wanted to post about something truly scary from the Middle Ages. I thought long and hard about what subject to choose. What would scare me the most if I traveled back in time? And in the end it wasn’t war or famine or even the horrible fate of living in a world without coffee. It was plague.

The Black Death

buboeThere have been a number of different plagues throughout history, but none as well-known as The Black Death. There is a reason for its infamy–not only did it wipe out anywhere from 30-60% of Europe’s population in the mid 14th century, but it was also a terrible way to die.

It began with flu-like symptoms: fever, chills, aches. Sometimes it even lead to seizures. But what made this disease truly terrible were the buboes–painful, swollen lymph glands usually on the neck, groin, or armpit. These buboes were filled with pus and dead blood cells. If they remained unlanced they’d expand, sometimes to the size of a softball, until the person died from the buildup of dead blood. Lancing wasn’t much better, though. It was just as likely to kill the infected person, who would often die of toxemia. On top of that, the lanced wound was cauterized with a hot iron…without the aid of anesthesia. Not a pretty way to die.


Plague as a military (dis)advantage

Now the Black Death didn’t hit at once. It spread, making its European debut in Italy and then hopping around Europe, and finally over to Britain. To the great pleasure of the Scots, the plague hit England first. This might sound harsh, and I suppose it is, but they viewed the “foul death of England” as a sort of biblical smiting. Illness, in general, was seen as the result of sin, and as far as the Scots were concerned, the English were the greatest sinners of them all. It’s hard to blame them for their animosity. They were in the midst of the Second War for Independence, and England had been trying to take over their country for several years by this point. So yeah, they got a little cocky when they thought the hammer of God was coming down on their English enemies.

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall…

600px-Helmeted_Medieval_Knight_or_Soldier_(2) (1)With half of England busy dying, the Scots decided it was their time to shine. They gathered in the forests of Selkirk, ready to invade the whole of England. And then those glorious dreams were dashed, when they all came down with the plague. 5,000 men died and the rest crawled back to Scotland, doubtless infecting others along the way. Of course, we can’t fully blame those men for the plague reaching Scotland. Most experts agree it probably entered through the ports. Still, it must have felt like a karmic kick in the stones.

The Edinburgh Plague

Marykingsclose006The Black Death was not the last time plague reached Scotland. In 1645 Edinburgh was hit so hard with plague, it wiped out half the population. This wasn’t their first rodeo, though, and this time they took measures to contain it. Plague victims were quarantined to their homes and told to hang white sheets from their doors and windows. The city hired a plague doctor to visit the infected homes on a daily basis.

The fist plague doctor, John Paulitious, died, you guessed it, of the plague. Go figure. Fortunately, their second doctor, George Rae, came in superhero gear.

Enter: The Birdman

449px-Dr_George_RaeThis super creepy plague fighting ensemble was intended to protect the doctor from plague-causing miasma (see this post for more on miasma theory). They covered their body in a thick leather costume, wore gloves and goggles, and a long beak filled with perfumed herbs. This proved to be a fairly effective defense (though not for the reasons they thought), which turned out to be a bit of a problem for the Edinburgh officials. Nobody had expected George Rae to survive, so they  offered him gobs and gobs of money to treat plague victims. After all, dead men don’t collect paychecks. Poor George Rae had to go after the city council for years after the plague ended to get his dues and probably never got all that was owed to him.

Urban legends

One of the worst hit areas was a section of Edinburgh called Mary King’s Close. Legend has it that in order to contain the plague, the city bricked up the Close, leaving both the plague-ridden and healthy inhabitants to starve to death. There is no evidence this actually happened, but it’s a tragic bit of lore. And as we all know, tragedy leads to hauntings…

Today Mary King’s Close is located beneath the streets of Edinburgh, but reports of specters have been rife since well before the area was walled up and paved over. Ghost lovers can take a tour of this underground city and see the houses that were there at the time of the plague.

The most famous ghost is that of a little girl named Annie, who had reportedly been left alone to die when her parents discovered she was infected with the plague. A Japanese psychic reportedly made contact with the little girl and said Annie was upset because she didn’t have her doll. Since then people have been leaving dolls for the little ghost girl.

Annie's Toys

Maybe I’ve seen one too many Chucky movies, but these dolls freak me out more than the idea of walking through an underground plague street.

Annie isn’t the only ghost people report seeing. Many have encountered a woman in a black or gray dress, and a man who disappears when approached. Footsteps sometimes echo when no one is walking, and strange noises can be heard from one particular chimney. Some people have reported sticking their hands in the chimney and getting scratched. Others report apparitions of disembodied heads and severed limbs floating through the air.

Whether you believe in this sort of thing or not, by all accounts it’s supposed to be a fantastic tour. If you’re planning to visit Edinburgh anytime soon, you can visit this site for information on visiting Mary King’s Close–

*As a side note, I haven’t been compensated in any way for this or any of my other blog posts. But if The Real Mary King’s Close or any other group in Scotland wants to sponsor me with a free vacation, I’ll gladly praise you up and down on this blog 🙂


15 thoughts on “Plague, Politics, and Poltergeist

  1. Another great post. The whole business about the “birdman” is fascinating, but why a bird in particular? I suppose it held some symbolic significance (a ministering, winged creature??). Or was it purely mechanical (i.e., the bird “beak” was intended to prevent the doctor from gagging over the smell of decomposing bodies?).

    1. I think they chose the beak so they had a space big enough to shove herbs and other good smelling material. It was very important to them not to breathe in foul smelling air because they thought that was the cause of illness

  2. The link to your post on the miasma theory goes to a post about pugs an medieval meat. Just so you know.

    I couldn’t find the miasma post.

    I do love the posts here.

    1. Most people think it came with the rats that were on the ships importing goods from Asia. Fleas would bit the rats, then people and spread it. Of course once people had it they could spread it further through coughing (pneumatic form) or bodily fluids like when they lanced it. Pretty nasty stuff!

  3. I always wondered about the beaked face mask but never looked it up! Sorry getting to this late, it was a busy weekend! Another fascinating post. Hope the book is coming along. Just finished editing my latest installment for the third time! 😀

    1. Congratulations! Mine is coming along slowly. Time is getting filled up too fast, and I’m behind on just about everything. I need a week in an isolated cabin or something lol 😉

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