Those who stayed in London did all they could to protect themselves from the plague. As no one knew what caused the plague, most of these were based around superstition. In 1665 the College of Physicians issued a directive that brimstone ‘burnt plentiful’ was recommended for a cure for the bad air that caused the plague. Those employed in the collection of bodies frequently smoked tobacco to avoid catching the plague.
“For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes. Thomas Hearnes remembers one Tom Rogers telling him that when he was a scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged, all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. It was long afterwards a tradition that none who kept a tobacconist shop in London had the plague.” A J Bell writing in about 1700.
Other methods were also used to keep the plague away. When money was used in day-to-day transactions in shops or at market, it was placed in a bowl of vinegar rather than being handed over to the recipient. At markets, meat was not handed over by hand rather but by a joint being attached to a hook.
The wearing of lucky charms was also common – and recommended by doctors. Ambroise Pare, a physician, introduced new methods for treating gunshot wounds – but he still believed that a lucky charm would keep away the plague. Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck.
The Church had a more basic way of protecting yourself against the plague. It recommended prayer and then more prayer.
Those who could afford health certificates were allowed to leave London, such as Dr Alston, the President of the College of Physicians. This mainly meant that the rich could leave London while the poor stayed in the city. Leaving the city was an obvious way of protecting yourself against the plague.
Charlatans who stayed in London set themselves up as doctors. They sold plague ‘cures’ at high prices. There were many who were willing to try these quack cures as few had any other alternative. ‘Plague water’ was a popular cure as was powered unicorn horn and frogs legs. What actually went into powered unicorn horn is not known. Putting the tail feathers of a live chicken onto buboes drew out the poison allowing the patient to recover – so people were told.
Making a victim of the plague sweat and then applying to buboes a recently killed pigeon was a popular ‘cure’.
It is known that some who caught the plague did survive but the records kept at the time are not at all clear as to whether any ‘cures’ were applied to these people or whether they were extremely lucky. As a fourteen year old boy, Sir Dudley North caught the plague and was shut up in his father’s London home. His mother looked after him and his sister who also had the plague. Both survived but nothing is known about the treatment their mother gave to them.
It has to also be remembered that while many thousands did die in London from the plague, many more did not – including the likes of Samuel Pepys, Dr. Nathaniel Hodges and the Rev. Thomas Vincent who went on to write about their experiences. Many of these people would have had daily contact with plague victims but survived.