It’s the same routine every October—the phone calls, the procrastination, the dithering. Then my better self shows up and submits to the long wait in a cramped closet space called a “Lab Waiting Room,” the assault of germs from other better selfs who expel coughs and sneezes in my direction, and the final insult, a stab in the arm by a complete stranger whose facial expression betrays her wish to be with her boyfriend on a beach somewhere, anywhere.
At least that’s how I felt last Thursday afternoon.
Thursday evening I decided to take a sortie back in time—at least I tried to put myself in the place of an average peasant or “high-born”—to see what it was like to walk the streets of Wittenberg or breath the air of Noyon or visit a physician in Geneva during the time of the Reformation.
It’s common knowledge that medicine wasn’t exactly as it is today, but that’s often treated as a footnote to an exposition of a theological dispute or an aside when discussing Luther, who we’re told suffered from constipation, or John Calvin, whose illnesses—headaches, pleurisy, gout, kidney stones, hemorrhoids—descended upon him like torrents of rain. More on those hemorrhoids in a moment.
After their escape from the Marienthron Convent, Katharina von Bora (Luther’s future wife) and her accomplices strolled through Wittenberg in an attempt to acclimate to city life but instead had their sensibilities shocked. What they discovered was the raw reality of sewage flowing down the streets in open streams along with random piles of manure and garbage heaped hither and fro. It was commonplace for mangy animals to fight over fly-covered entrails tossed into the street by shop-owners and house servants alike. Add to their company horses, cattle, pigs, donkeys, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, rats, and mice, and you have a picture of everyday life in the fertile breeding ground of disease called Europe.
Back at home or hovel or castle, families walked on floor coverings woven from rushes and grasses. While the top layer could be removed from time to time, the bottom layer seldom changed. This caused Erasmus to lament, “The floors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harboring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned.” Of course, Erasmus only commented on the floors. Had he continued, he probably would have moaned about the dark, airless, and generally filthy condition of all abodes, irrespective of their inhabitants.
As if all these conspiring agents weren’t enough to foul the air, large populations of unbathed people contributed in kind. Earlier plagues had spread more than death, leaving populaces with a deep mistrust of water. The peasants only bathed about twice a year—spring and fall—with the wealthy enjoying a soak weekly or monthly. Soap—something we all take for granted—came at such an expense that even kings seldom lathered up. Instead, strong perfumes or pomanders were kept close at hand for those whose purses held enough coins to purchase them, what you might label a noble attempt at concealing the unconcealable.
A few years ago during a family move, we tossed some hopeless items into the back of our truck and drove to the local land fill. As we ventured through the gate, the scene reminded me of my childhood sandpile cities, all carefully crafted with my brother’s Tonka trucks. But that cheerful memory was quickly erased by the strong, overpowering stench of the surroundings. We were literally parked on years of decaying discards.
After seventeen and a half minutes of measured breaths and slow exhales, all metered with my face buried in an old fleece jacket while trying to be thankful for the partial escape it provided, accompanied by the surround sound of jarring thuds and unmuffled engines, we finally bumped and wobbled our way back to the main gate and made our exit.
Would I call this an existential equivilance? I hardly think so, but it’s the closest fodder I have to feed my imagination on city life in sixteenth-century Europe. The memory (and smell) of the land fill haunted me for days. What, pray tell, would have become of me in Wittenberg?
The idea of cleanliness as a deterrent to germs and disease and pestilence didn’t take hold until centuries later—filth was simply a fact of life no matter what your status, which might account for Shakespeare’s line, “Uneasy is the head that wears the Crown.” (King Henry IV) At Henry’s coronation in 1399, his head was teeming with lice!
In this flourishing environment for infectious disease, the people endured—or died from—dysentery, tuberculosis, arthritis, scurvy, influenza, smallpox, measles, ague, leprosy, St. Anthony’s Fire, gangrene, nervous conditions, insanity, and STDs such as the “French Disease,” known to us as syphilis. Oh yes, and the plague.
Would a trip to the doctor have helped these poor souls? That depends. If you had the money, a doctor would take a urine sample and read your horoscope. He may even prescribe an herbal prescription, but the real cure-all was bloodletting.
Have a cold? Bloodletting.
Have the flu? Bloodletting.
Have a fever? Ooh, copious amounts of bloodletting.
To add insult to injury, it wouldn’t be your doctor that performed the procedure. Bloodletting fell within the purview of barbers who had a knack for razors and sharp instruments—dirty ones no doubt. Remember those red and white striped poles at your local barbershop that resembled candy canes fit for a giant? The red symbolized blood loss; the white represented the bandages required to stop the bleeding.
On the bright side, there were options for those who liked the idea of choice. If you swooned at the thought of a razor, you could check the box next to “leeches.” However, if you were John Calvin and your medical records indicated hemorrhoids, you were out of luck. No leeches for you.
After this little excursion back to someone’s good old days, I thought about the nice clean needle injected into my arm earlier that day. True, my arm was sore but there wasn’t any bloodletting. Actually, the technician said there wasn’t any blood at all, but she applied a sterile bandage just for good measure. I remembered leaving the lab and making my way towards the exit, walking on vacuumed carpets and polished floors, breathing fresh, cool, filtered air. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
I’ve been examined. And all I can say is, “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” especially the one in the mirror.
One day Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee. He heard ten men calling him from a distance, begging him for mercy, which in their case meant physical healing from leprosy. Jesus didn’t touch them but instead sent them off to a priest, whose job it was to declare a man healed. As they ran off, the Bible tells us they were healed along the way.
And then the convicting part of the story—“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” To rub salt in the wound, Luke tells us the man was a Samaritan. I wonder what differentiated this man from his companions. Was it his humility in knowing that he was a helpless beggar, having nothing to offer to Jesus, yet hoping for mercy?
It’s been said that thankfulness can’t be willed but can only be awakened. A little history rubbed the sleep from my eyes last Thursday night and taught me how many things I fail to appreciate and show thankfulness to God for each day of my life. I’m quick to forget that I’m no different than the Samaritan, a helpless beggar, but one who has received the merciful grace of life and blessing upon blessing.
Honestly, I don’t know how our Reformational fathers and mothers lived and worked in the midst of such squalor, but they’ve tilled the ground of my fallowed, ungrateful heart and planted a much deeper appreciation for indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and a simple bar of soap.