Urban and Rural Plague Prevention: Johann Georg Schiebel’s “Plague Pharmacy” (1680)

— Martin Christ

It is not always easy to find “urbanity” in early modern sources. Many times, historians have to reconstruct what an author considered to be features of urbanity, by reading carefully and between the lines. This is especially the case because words, such as “urbanity” or “rurality” do not feature in these sources, instead problems and benefits of living in an “urban setting” may be explored by early modern authors. Reading “against the grain” and reconstructing from implicit references, how authors understood their own urbanity can be a difficult, but highly rewarding endevour. In many cases, the few references to urban features may be covered by polemics, such as those on urban dystopias, sometimes in contrast to bucolic ideals. These issues are even more pronounced if we turn our attention to non-European sources, where different words and concepts were used to describe features we may describe as “urban”. And, as Susanne Rau has pointed out, the term urbanity also underwent changes in meaning throughout history.

A source, which contains explicit references to urban and rural features is therefore particularly fascinating. Johann Georg Schiebel’s Plague Pharmacy (the full title is: Pest-Apothecke/ Vor Einfältige Bauern/ und andere Arme Leute : Das ist: Sehr bewährte Hauß-Mittel/ Und Wohlfeyle Artzneyen/ Nebenst guthen Rath vor Leute auffm Lande … / Durch Einem Liebhaber trostloser und geängsteter Leute) is one such text, that is aimed, from an urban perspective, at the rural population and it discusses rural adaptations of urban medicine in some detail. The tract contains practical and medical recommendations and closes with a poem, focusing on trust in God during such times of crisis.

Schiebel (1656-1684) was a poet and theologian. He studied philosophy and theology in Wittenberg, becoming a Magister in 1675. On 24 May 1679, he was appointed imperial poet laureate. He then became rector and cantor in Radeburg and married Dorothea Bergen on 19 October 1679. He died aged only 28 in 1684, but already published a large number of works, including poetry collections, theological tracts and a chronicle. (For details of his works, see the database VD17). Around 1680, he also published some tracts on plague (Pestilenz), as a result of an outbreak of this disease in town.

Picture of the poet and theologian Johann Georg Schiebel (CC licence, see here for details).

One of these tracts is the Plague Pharmacy, printed in 1680 without a place of print. The text already points to its addressees in the title: “simple farmers and poor people”. In the preface, Schiebel extends this focus by writing that “many simple (einfältige) people complain frequently that in the medical books there are too many Latin words and letters, as well as fractions (gebrochene Zahlen) and all sorts of signs and weights […] which they do not understand”. Furthermore, they complained about the high prices of the treatments, so Schiebel hoped that the texts he provided would be useful. Implicitly, Schiebel contrasts rural simple-mindedness and poverty with urban settings, where complex medical tracts were more easily understood and readily bought.

Throughout the text, we can gain an impression, what Schiebel considered to be features of the urban life, as he contrasts them with what was available in the rural setting that he addressed with his text. In the first part of the text, he writes that doctors and barber surgeons were not present in the countryside, so instead the house father (Haus-Vater) should have basic remedies in his house during times of plague. These included scales, scissors, linen, glasses, coals and a sponge. Schiebel’s recommendation to stock these items (Vorrath) made me think of the hoarding of toilet paper and other goods during the Corona pandemic… At the end of the tract, Schiebel even provides a list in alphabetical order with all the remedies and materials one should have in the house during times of plague, giving a succinct summary of the previous text.

In his list of remedies to be kept in the house, Schiebel once again refers to the rural setting of his addressees. He wrote that his list of about two and a half pages may seem long, but many of them are “common things” (gemeine Dinge), which many of the “farmers and their wives” (Bauern und ihre Weiber) know themselves and collect for free, i.e. from their fields or in the countryside, or they bought them for a small sum from wise women (umb wenig Groschen von den Kräuter-Weibern). And only the remainder had to be bought from a pharmacy, probably meaning an urban pharmacy as opposed to the two other ways of receiving the treatments.

Schiebel also gave three kinds of advice to use against plague: First, true piety and serious prayer in order to pacify God’s wrath, second a move away from the town and the recommendation not to return too soon and only third the remedies and to keep away from suspicious people and places. These remedies contain all sorts of medicines, including herbs, oils, leaves, berries and nuts. These medicines are followed by recommendations for clean air, such as opening the windows at certain times, spreading pleasant-smelling fruits in the bedchamber or a vinegar-soaked sponge. These passages are followed by signs for the plague and further remedies for those who caught the plague, for example “Soldiers should take some powder, if they feel they have the plague, mix it with some warm beer, sweat, which drives out the poison through boils”, alternatively one could put a living frog on the plague boils to cure them.

Pages from Johann Georg Schiebel’s Pest-Apothecke/ Vor Einfältige Bauern/ und andere Arme Leute (s.l., 1680), copy of the University of Halle, digitized here.

In the text, Schiebel makes it clear that the first and foremost reason for the plague was God’s punishment and so the best cure was also prayer and a good life. If someone caught the plague or died of the plague, this was also divine will and should therefore be accepted without complaints. At the same time, one could try to limit the spread of the disease and recover by using the remedies that Schiebel recommended in the tract. It was also through God’s will that people were saved from death and so God also provided the medicines to be used by those suffering from plague. Here, however, Schiebel made no distinction between urban and rural settings and argued that God punished all humans for their sinful lives.

But there are other religious elements in the text, where Schiebel makes such a distinction. Not only doctors and barber surgeons were more common in towns in Schiebel’s opinion, but also clerics. The preachers, who went to visit the sick were feared by many because they spread the disease after visiting the sick. So people should frequently attend communion in the villages while they were still healthy, so that they did not have to call on the regular preacher when they caught the plague. In villages and the countryside, and unlike in bigger towns, there was no separate plague preacher. The better-developed clerical structure in the towns could contain a plague preacher, sometimes specifically employed during times of plague. This was not possible in villages and the countryside and so one cleric also had to fulfil functions, which exposed him to the dangers of plague.

In his recommendations for the victims of plague, the theologian and poet Schiebel also made very practical recommendations, aimed at the rulers and administrators of the villages and countryside. He told them that grave diggers should be paid from fines given to criminals, especially prostitutes and adulterers, that graves should be deep enough for the dead not to spread their poison or that all faeces and dirt should be kept away from the streets and alleys. Benefitting from texts and advice developed in a largely urban context, Schiebel now passed on this information to his imagined rural readership.

The remedies explored by Schiebel were developed in urban settings and with an urban population in mind. He then adapted and adjusted them to more rural circumstances. This is also true for many of the religious aspects, such as the better developed clerical hierarchy in the towns, which he changed according to the rural addressees of his tract. But these kinds of processes have wider repercussions: they show that urban practices were possible beyond the city, a theme explored in the KFG’s next annual conference. There was no simple dichotomy between urban and rural, but rather a constant adaptive process between different actors, objects and rituals. And, whether rural or urban, there were also unifying factors. Most importantly for someone like Johann Georg Schiebel, the decision about life and death came from God, because he was der himmlische Arzt – the heavenly doctor.

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on the urban dead in early modern Munich and London.

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