Shutt Up! – Quarantine and preventing plague in the 1600s.

self isolating at the Oak House.

Firstly if you are alive today (which you are as you are reading this blog) it is possible that you have some resistance to the plague as your ancestors were those that survived it when it decimated the population in the past. As such none of the measures mentioned below are necessary and Sandwell Museums strongly suggests you don’t try this at home!

Quarantine and isolation was perhaps the only effective solution to infection in the 1600s. Isolation had been used since the 1100s for leprosy in particular, and the Venetians introduced a 40 day quarantine (from quarantenaria literally 40 days) years before the English did.

The wealthy could as always follow the old medical advice ‘cito longe tarde’ (fly quickly go far return slowly) – not an option available for the poor, but one that helped immensely in ensuring the widest possible spread of disease, as the rich took infection out into the countryside with them.

The plague outbreak in 1635-6 was mainly confined to a number of ports and to London – as far as we are aware the West Midlands was not badly affected – but it was the first time that quarantine as an official, government, policy was implemented. It was a requirement of the parish to carry out the measures, with the local constables principally responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations. There was some flexibility in enforcing the rules; if an infected person was discovered other members of the household not exhibiting symptoms might be allowed to move out, or sometimes an infected individual would be moved to a communal ‘Pesthouse’, with other infected people. People not showing signs of infection could be quarantined in their home.

At other times an entire household would be quarantined, leaving empty houses when everyone had died! Particularly when, as was often the case, the Pesthouses were full to bursting.

Bring out your dead

Constables were required to board up the doors, paint a big red cross on the front and the message’ Lord have mercy on us’. A watchman would be employed to stop anyone entering and leaving – and the quarantine started again if anyone else died. Any breaches of the quarantine rules resulted in those breaching the rules, and often their families, being placed in quarantine, even if they showed no sign of illness.

People quarantined ceased to be economically active. The parish identified chargeable, partially chargeable and not chargeable households. Chargeable households , those that could not support themselves, were granted 4d per day per person from the parish to support themselves. Many people were subsequently required to pay back some, if not all, of this parish support.

The rules required that ‘the master of euery house assoone as any one in his house complaineth, either of Blotch, or Purple, or Swelling, shall giue knowledge thereof to the Examiner of health within two houres after the said signe shall appeare’.

An Oak House plague victim in Master Turton’s best bed

Court records demonstrate frequent attempts to conceal plague and causes of death, and particularly cases of bribery where attempts were made to bribe parish officers to hide the truth and thereby prevent quarantine. Shopkeepers in particular were anxious not to have their building quarantined, as this would result in a total closure of their business and often for grocers etc. a total loss of perishable stock.

There was also considerable religious opposition. Many preachers preached that the plague was God’s punishment on a Godless and sinful people, and attempts to mitigate the impact was an attempt to thwart God’s will. Plague, they argued, should be allowed to run its course. That was the godly way.

Don’t try this at home!

In the 17th century there was a great and morbid fear of the plague, spread by infected rat fleas and in suspension in cough and sneeze droplets. So given the lack of any current vaccine or cure for the Corona virus we thought we would take a look in one of our favourite books, Gervase Markham’s ‘An English Housewife’ and see what advice he might have on self-medication.

A virtuous, patient 17th century housewife of stout courage with her familiar – I mean pet rat!

His introduction on the necessary virtues of the housewife (she should be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent . . .etc) was not particularly helpful or useful, but on page 2 he launches into a whole series of concoctions for various forms of fever.  He doesn’t touch on Corona virus, but there are a variety of potions for various fevers as well as bubonic plague.

The ingredients for his plague prevention concoctions were all those that a middling sort of housewife (such as Elizabeth Turton of the Oak House) would have in her store cupboard or be able to pick herself in her garden or local woods and fields.  

The preservative starts with a quart (1.13 litres) of old ale, which should be heated until it foams, and then any solid matter or scum skimmed off. 

To this is added half a handful of angelica (the herb was used to flavour some liqueurs), celandine (also known as pilewort – I’ll let you work out what that was used for!) and aristolochia longa, one of the pipevine family. Although pipevines have been used in medicine since Roman times, they can cause kidney damage so I’m going off this recipe already!

After boiling this all up together and filtering off the vegetable matter you should next add a dram (3.697ml) of mithridate.  Now this is difficult to get hold of today but it was a key ingredient in many medicines in the 1600s, named after Mithridate King of Pontus who live around 100BC and is said to have taken a small amount of poison every day to build up his resistance to it.  We don’t advise you try this at home!

There were as many different recipes for it as there were 17th century apothecaries (the equivalent of our modern pharmacists – well apart from the lack of modern medical knowledge and training).

This plague prevention version is difficult and expensive to make at home, requiring between 30 and 60 different ingredients, including many expensive perfumes such as frankincense and myrrh, a dash of opium and maybe some fly agaric mushroom (known to cause hallucinations and organ failure – not ideal).  As well as some lizard scales and the wonderfully named ‘troches of squills’ (dried lily stems if you didn’t know). 

Now add a dram of powdered ivory (that’s illegal to buy now!) and six spoonfulls of dragon water, which isn’t nearly as exotic as it sounds, being a thickening agent made from the goats thorn bush.

This should, if you’ve done it properly, give you a runny jelly. 

Take five spoonfulls of this per day, then chew on a dried root of angelica. Sorted. 

Other well known plague preventative measures included hanging pomanders around your person or around the house (these were sweet smelling and consisted of dried fruit, herbs and spices) to make the air smell sweet. People believed as disease smelt awful then sweet smells would keep disease away. Smoke would also be used to ‘purify’ the air or you could shove sponge or cloth soaked in vinegar up your nose to prevent the disease getting in. People placed pots of blood around the house which they hoped fleas would jump into to try and keep their house flea free (not that people really realised that fleas were helping to spread the disease). Putting up red curtains could also help if you got the disease.

Fly Agaric Mushrooms at Oak House

Perhaps you don’t need any preventative measures against plague – as we mentioned earlier if you are alive today it is very likely that you’ve inherited a high level of resistance to bubonic plague from your ancestors in the 1300s and 1600s who were among the 33-50% of people who didn’t die from it!

I’m not sure just how useful some of Markham’s actual treatments for plague sufferers would be against corona virus as he focuses on treating the buboes which gives bubonic plague its name. These are swellings usually on the neck, under the armpits and between the legs and could be fairly purple/black and unpleasant. Thankfully this doesn’t appear to be a symptom of our current infection.

If anyone is suffering from purple pus-filled golf-ball sized swellings in your armpits, on your face, neck or arms – that’s not corona virus! Get yourself a live chicken or half a a wood pigeon and contact Sandwell Museums for instructions as to what you need to do with it!

A plague doctor wore a mask with a long beak with sweet smelling herbs and flowers in it. This would prevent him for getting plague as because disease smelt awful then anything smelling nice would keep disease away – or so they thought!


Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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