One thing I learned when I went into self-isolation on March 13 and started digging around for more information about pandemics is that while the term “social distancing” may be a 21st century invention, the practice of people isolating themselves to prevent the spread of dangerous and highly contagious diseases is a way of life that humans have been practicing since at least the 5th century BCE. Until now I had a vague notion of what the medieval Bubonic Plague was, and I knew that scores of people were killed by the Spanish flu in the early 20th century. But I did not realize just how many plagues of one sort or another have swept around the world century after century leaving millions of people dead in their wake. Nor did I know what they drank during those dark days.
The earliest recorded sizeable pandemic may be The Plague of Justinian. Spreading over the Byzantine Empire between 541 and 549 BCE it was responsible for approximately 30-50 million deaths. The deadliest disease outbreak in history (so far) was the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic plague, which killed 75-200 million people as it raged across Europe, Africa and Asia from 1346 to 1353. Both the Black Death and the Justinian Plague were likely caused by Yersinia pestis, bacteria that was transmitted to humans by fleas who jumped off rats and onto humans.
The deadliest flu pandemic of the 19th century claimed at least a million victims as it raced across the world between 1889 and 1890, starting in the Russian Empire and peaking four months later in the United States. But this was nothing compared to the first lethal pandemic of the 20th century: the 1918-1919 Influenza H1N1, known also as the Spanish Flu, emerged during World War1, when battlefield conditions (global troop movement, overcrowding, poor wartime nutrition) helped spread the virus. This pandemic resulted in approximately 675,000 deaths in the United States and at least 500 million deaths worldwide—about a third of the world’s population. Other relatively recent significant pandemics include Cholera outbreaks in 1817 and 1923 which killed more than a million people; Smallpox, claiming 56 million lives; HIV/AIDS, with 25-35 million dead so far. And now here we are in the midst of our own global pandemic. As of this writing, the worldwide death toll from covid-19 is in the millions, with no end in sight.
We have the Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375 CE) to thank for one of the first accounts of people isolating themselves to avoid contracting or passing along a disease. In The Decameron, Boccacio spins a tale of ten people who have fled Florence during the plague and taken shelter together in a country villa. Thus isolated, they fill the time telling each other stories, eating well, and drinking plenty of “good white wine.”
Of course, few people in those days had access to the kind of “good” white wine Boccacio was writing about, but almost everyone had vinegar, a common staple in most households and one that was generally believed to prevent symptoms of the plague. It was often recommended as an additive to food or drink, although some people just drank vinegar strait. Doctors washed their hands, and sometimes their faces, with vinegar. Vinegar was an ingredient in various medicinal potions. People gargled with it, and walls in the houses of sick patients were sometimes washed down with vinegar. But while it’s true that vinegar has antibacterial properties, there is no evidence that it can kill a virus like covid-19.
Shrubs, vinegar-based drinks that were first common in 15th century England, were surely a go-to beverage during plague years. Shrubs even saw a bit of renewed popularity a few years ago in pre-Covid Brooklyn and other communities where hipster bars thrive. Perhaps it is enjoying a comeback now as a potential antiviral drink. While a shrub definitely will not protect you from Covid or any other flu, it can be a refreshing beverage. To make your own shrub, mix together ½ cup sugar with about 2 cups of chopped fresh ripe plums, peaches or berries. Refrigerate the mixture overnight, stirring it a couple of times. Strain and mix in ¼ cup red wine vinegar and ¼ cup apple cider vinegar. Drink as is or add tonic.
Possets were popular during the plague years and beyond, both in Europe and in Colonial America. Posset, which resembles an eggnog somewhat, is produced by pouring heated cream over a mixture of eggs, cream, sugar and lemon. Like eggnog, a posset might not contain alcohol but, like eggnog, it most often does.
The most common drink during pandemic years was Plague Water. Any number of historic Plague Water recipes may be found on the Internet today, should you be interested in making your own. Most Plague Water was based on herbs (rue, wormwood, mugworth and such), but the main ingredient was alcohol. Indeed, alcohol, with or without added herbs, was by far the most common beverage in plague-filled medieval days when the safety of water was dicey. Since milk and fruit juices were mostly unavailable as there was no way to preserve them without refrigeration, everyone—men, women, children—regularly drank alcohol. In plague years they likely drank even more alcohol. While the wealthy enjoyed their “good white wine” and for that matter good red as well, everyone else downed vin ordinaire and/or beer, ale, mead, cider, or perry. People also consumed distilled spirits—lots of distilled spirits, especially gin. Explaining why people liked booze so much, English philosopher Roger Bacon wrote that it “…cheers the heart…and makes the tongue voluble.” But, he cautioned, “If it be over much guzzled it will on the contrary do a great deal of harm.”
Cheering the heart with alcohol apparently remained a favorite therapy for flu victims as the 20th century rolled around. In 1922, when physicians were queried about the Spanish Flu, 51% of them described whiskey as a “necessary therapeutic agent.” Several of these doctors reported that alcohol helped stimulate the heart and respiratory system of sick patients, and others thought the whiskey’s sedative effects made sick patients more comfortable. Since this was during the years of Prohibition in the United States, physicians often wrote prescriptions to be filled by pharmacists for “medicinal” whiskey.
In our own pandemic era, we are definitely taking advantage of that fact we don’t need a doctor’s prescription to purchase alcoholic beverages. Hard liquor sales are up 75%, wine is up 66% and beer is up 34% according to The Drinks Business, and “Spirits has been the biggest riser since Covid-19 led to the closure of bars and restaurants in the US…. In terms of categories, the greatest rate of growth in online sales has been seen in spirits, although wine continues to have by far the largest share of e-commerce, commanding almost 70% of internet alcohol retail sales.”
It seems we continue to cheer our hearts with alcohol, but with luck we won’t do too much over guzzling.