Greetings, year-long Halloween fiends! Drew from FrightProps here – I’m one of the weirdos working behind the scenes at a Halloween prop making company based in the frozen wasteland of Minneapolis. I’m also the goony force behind the FrightProps blog. Recently, we put together a highly disturbing post that managed to gross out even us. Naturally, we looked to one of our favorite Halloween blogs to help us freak out the whole world.
Around the lunch table today, we were discussing zombies and how much it would suck to be someone with a bad skin condition or deformity trying to survive during the zombie apocalypse. So as an educational component to this blog, we’ve decided to catalog five unfortunate medieval medical conditions that made you look like a zombie.
5. Bubonic Plague
Beginning in the mid-14th century, a virulent bacterium caused waves of plagues to wash across Europe, killing nearly half of the population on the continent in less than 300 years. The most infamous of these was the Bubonic Plague, hitting Europe in 1347 and better known as the Black Death. Causing darkening of the extremities due to bruising and gangrene, the disease established a legendary reputation of repulsiveness and forever influenced heavy metal band names and song titles. This plague killed swiftly, sometimes in the course of a single day, but not before patients could suffer a variety of painful and disfiguring symptoms, including egg-shaped tumors (actually grotesquely swollen lymph nodes – the eponymous “buboes”), necrosis of the nose, lips, and fingers, and prolonged vomiting of blood. Although the plague had burned itself by the 17th century, it took another two centuries for Europe to recover its pre-plague population levels.
Detail from illustration of the Black Death in the 1411 Toggenburg Bible; Circa 1360–1375 manuscript illustration of a bishop blessing victims of the Black Death; 1512 woodcut of a doctor and his assistants tending to a plague patient
Manifesting as facial lesions and distortions and loss of your digits (as your cartilage is consumed by your body), you would have been bound to be mistaken for a zombie by any overzealous shotgun-wielding warrior. Leprosy ran rampant during the Middle Ages, with thousands of leper colonies in France alone in the 11th to 13th centuries. In fact, until the arrival of the Black Death, leprosy was the most widely feared of medieval diseases. In modern times, incidence of the disease have dropped dramatically, and luckily it’s now fairly treatable – over 15 million people have been cured of leprosy in the last 20 years. Oddly enough, it is estimated that roughly a third of the cases that show up in the United States comes from handling infected armadillos. No foolin’.
Shameless Shout Out: Our friends at Pale Night Productions actually offer a pretty stellar kit to replicate the effects. It’s so good that I actually clicked on it on an image search having no idea it wasn’t the real deal!
1466 Charaf-ed-Din illustration of cauterization of leprosy lesions, detail; Painting by William Brassey Hole, ‘The Four Lepers Looting the Camp of the Syrians, 2 Chronicles 20:17’
Mentioned in medical writings as far back as 1500 BC, smallpox arrived in Europe by the middle ages and began decimating native populations in North America with European exploration of the 15th Century. Known as the Red Plague, smallpox caused an rash of red bumps to appear on the face and limbs – bumps that quickly became delightful pus-filled blisters. As you wandered the post-apocalyptic wastelands with your oozing mementos, even if you weren’t mistaken for a zombie, you’d still lead a fairly lonely existence.
Detail from the 16th century Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún showing a Mesoamerican infected with smallpox
A disease caused by a fungus living on wheat and rye, ergotism came in two forms. Convulsive ergotism could cause crawling sensations in the skin, vertigo, hallucinations, ringing in the ears, intense headaches, mania, and convulsions, and is perhaps best known for its suggested role in medieval mass hysteria culminating in witch trials across the continent. However, as disturbing and deadly as convulsive ergotism could be it pales on the zombie scale next to the disease’s other variant: gangrenous ergotism. With gangrenous ergotism, a dry or “burning” gangrene forms on the extremities, earning the disease names such as St. Anthony’s fire and resulting in a rash of disfigurement among Europeans due to lost limbs. Ergotism was said to contribute to the particularly horrific medieval imagery of hell, such as those painted by Hieronymus Bosch.
Detail, Circa 1512 painting by Matthias Grünewald of a patient suffering from advanced ergotism (left)
First recorded in Europe in the 1490’s (possibly as a New World souvenir from Columbus’s returning crewman), the sexually transmitted disease syphilis is most known for being a contributor in the mental unraveling of some of the world’s most legendary artists. Leo Tolstoy, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Howard Hughes, and Oscar Wilde are just a few famous examples of people plagued by syphilis.
While all the stages of syphilis are pretty disturbing, once syphilis (either contracted or inherited at birth) has been infecting an individual from 3 to 15 years, the tertiary stage sets in. It can manifest in a few different ways, but the most disturbing is the appearance of small non-cancerous growths that inflame the tissue – called gummas. An individual could frequently lose their nose as a result – a signature characteristic of the undead.
Detail from 1496 Albrecht Dürer etching of a person with syphilis; 1910 skull with symptoms of untreated tertiary syphilis; 1597 Gaspare Tagliacozzi engraving of an early nose replacement technique