Myths and Microbes


Sandra Buerger

I work as a Lecturer in the Natural Sciences at Boston University. I have an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and a PhD in Biology. My research background is in Microbial Ecology. I am currently working on a project on bacterial community changes surrounding environmental factors in aquatic environments. I am also interested in the folklore and history of disease.

King Richard’s Fingernails: A disease of the 3rd crusade.

King Richard

Recently I was reading The Plantagenets by Dan Jones ( As I got into the life of Richard the Lionheart, I came upon this passage:

Within a week setting up camp, Richard had fallen grievously ill with a scurvylike disease known as Arnaldia or Leonardie. His teeth and fingernails began to loosen, and his hair fell out in clumps.” (Jones, p. 109)

Jones does not go into more detail about this particular disease and what it might be. I became curious as to whether there is a modern equivalent and if anyone had looked further into what this disease could be.  As it happens, there are publications on this subject. The consensus in the historical community seems to be that Richard suffered trench mouth (Woodings, 1971; Peters, 1971; Reston 2001… among other examples). So, we have at this point two possible diagnoses:

Trench mouth and Scurvy

Let’s start with scurvy. While loose teeth and fingernails certainly sound like scurvy, other factors make this unlikely. Both King Richard and King Philippe of France suffered this disease at the same time. Reaction to a vitamin deficit would be unlikely to appear in two individuals simultaneously. One might also imagine that these two individuals would have access to the highest quality food available.  Also, scurvy was quite common on the third crusade, and recorded in the historical records. A different word is used for scurvy in texts of that time and place, yet that word does not appear in the description of Richard’s or Philippe’s illness. Finally, the symptoms don’t quite match. A number of record note that both kings had fevers. Typically, fever does not accompany scurvy (CWD).

Peters (1971) mentions the disease “Vincent’s Infection” (another name for trench mouth) and this is taken up by a number of other authors (Woodings, Reston). However, this appears to be mentioned in passing more than being fully dissected as possible diagnosis in many of these texts. Today, trench mouth is the common name for acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis, a non-contagious gum disease. Like scurvy, it seems unlikely that this disease would appear in two individuals at the same time and resolve without issue in these individuals, as well. However, trench fever does include symptoms that are similar to typhus and include a number of symptoms that are consistent with the historical descriptions of leonardie. These include fever (missing from scurvy). Trench fever is caused by a bacterial infection (Bartonella quintatna) which is spread by body lice (e-medicine and CWD). But again, something is missing. In no modern description of trench fever do we see the loosening of the teeth or the fingernails.

Perhaps a different disease is the cause? Something that is no longer even around?

A bygone disease?

In 2011, another paper was published that looked into this disease in some depth. The Illness of King Richard and King Philippe on the Third Crusade: An Understanding of arnaldia and leonardie by Thomas Wagner and Piers Mitchell explored what they called the social diagnosis and modern biological diagnosis.  They eventually conclude that “… there is not enough information in the sources to allow any kind of guess as to which infectious disease caused the two kings to develop fever and become so ill that their hair and nails fell out.” Still, they offer some interesting alternate theories to scurvy or trench mouth.

These include febris Romana (Roman fever) and a form of Schweissfieber (Sweating Sickness) known as Frieselfieber. Both of these diseases are mysteries in their own right and I plan on looking into them more in coming posts.

They also dissect the etymology of the words used in contemporaneous texts. These suggest that the origin of the words come from symptoms that had been observed in foxes or sheep. In particular, they explore the idea of the symptoms being similar to those seen in sheep. This made me think of the possibility of a zoonotic disease that “jumped,” then died out. In fact, one of the more common scenarios for a “jump” of a disease from an animal to a human is to cause disease in one or a few individuals, but be unable to effectively be transmitted from individual to individual. As this disease appears to be described in only two individuals and then disappears from the historical record, I would suggest this is a strong possibility.

Although we will likely never know exactly what disease caused the illness of the two kings, it is interesting to think of the various possibilities…



Kiple KF, ed. (1994) The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY.


Peters E (1971) Christian Society and the Crusades, 1198-1229. U Penn Press. Pennsylvania.


Reston J (2001) Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. Random House. New York, NY.


Wagner TG and Mitchell PD (2011) The Illnesses of King Richard and King Philippe on the Third Crusade: An Understanding of arnaldia and leonardie. Crusades 10: 23-44.


Woodings AF (1971) The Medical Resources and Practice of the Crusaders States in Syria and Palestine 1096-1193. Medical History  15: 268-277.


Ancient outbreaks… so many questions and a few answers.

Since humans stopped wandering the earth in nomadic groups and started living in sedentary communities they have been plagued by outbreaks. In the past, these outbreaks were shrouded in mystery. No one knew why they happened and methods to deal with these outbreaks were rudimentary at best. A retrospective look at history reveals some fascinating and horrifying tales. Using modern methods and examinations of the historical record, researchers have looked into these outbreaks and tried to untangle what happened and which microbes were responsible. In the next series on this blog, I will look at some of these stories and the answers that have been found and the questions that remain.

The Magical Healing Powers of Fasting Spittle


“The fasting spytle of a whole and founde personne, doth quyte take awaye all scuruines, sawsfleame, or readnes of the face, Ringwormes, Tetters, and all kind of Pustules or wheales, by smearing or rubbing the infected place therewith.”


In the quote above you see advice given in the 16th century. Do you have some kind of wound, rash, or skin disease? Simply find a healthy person early in the morning before they have eaten and take some of their saliva and rub it on your skin. You should be cured before long.


Even in the 16th century, this was not new advice. Thomas Lupton recorded this nugget of wisdom in a book called “A Thousand Notable Things,” but well before that Pliny (1st century AD) and others were advising the same.  And this advice persisted, traveling to the New World, where in the 1800s a publisher in Salem, Massachusetts reissued a treatise on the subject written by a physician around the mid-1700s. In section III of the treatise, he talks specifically about how this “fasting spittle” can be used. There are echoes of the past in his contemporaneous observations. He talks of a number of cases where he has seen or heard of the healing effects:


  • He knows a man who “was accosted with a very troublesome scorbutic tetter.” (translation: an eruptive skin disease). This man tried all kinds of treatments with no success. Finally, he applied his fasting spittle every morning (before eating his breakfast) and… viola- cured!
  • Another man had corns. He tried corn cutters and various ointments. Again, to no avail. He decides then, on the advice of another gentleman, to soak his feet at night, then chew some bread, thus soaking it in his fasting spittle, and place it on the corn. His corns go away.
  • Finally, he tells a story of a woman from a century before, who for nearly ten years, cured people of various disorders “solely by fasting spittle.” People apparently would travel a great distance to get this treatment.


Then we have the dawn of modern medicine. Spitting on a wound is strongly discouraged and such folk remedies are disregarded, even mocked. Yet, is there some truth to them? If it is a useless remedy why did it persist for so long?


When we turn to biology, we see an instinctive response in many mammals (humans, included) to lick their wounds. If this response were damaging, and only exposed the animal to harm, it would have surely been selected out by evolution. Yet, it remains.


In fact, an analysis of salvia does reveal the presence of many antimicrobial peptides and other agents that aid in healing. Wounds in the mouth tend to heal faster in other places. Modern scientists have even conducted studies to identify these compounds. Initially, mouse studies in the 1960s showed that epidermal growth factors were present in rodent saliva and could potentially speed up healing. Yet human and rodent saliva is quite different and the compounds identified in the studies that aided healing in mice were not found to be present in significant quantities in human saliva.


In 2008 and 2009 another piece of the puzzle was solved when a group of scientists published papers that (1) showed that human salvia can accelerated healing in tissue found outside the mouth and (2) isolated the molecule responsible for the increased healing times.


So, there is merit to the old folk remedy. Parents kiss the wounds of their children to “make it better.” Upon cutting your finger, your first instinct might be to place it in your mouth. Could this aid with healing time? Maybe. But beware, healing compounds are not the only thing found in the mouth. It is also filled with bacteria and viruses that might infect the wound. Perhaps the best thing to do is wait for the isolation of the compound by modern methods from the ancient idea of “fasting spittle.”




Opie I & Tatum M (1996) “Spittle Cures” in The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.



Oudhoff et al (2008) Histatins are the major wound-closure stimulating factors in human saliva as identified in a cell culture assay. FASEB Journal 22(11): 3805-3812.


Oudhoff et al (2009) Histatins Enhance Wound Closure with Oral and Non-Oral Cells. Journal of Dental Research 88(9): 846-50.


Selare R (1939) A Collection of Saliva Superstitions. Folklore 50(4): 349-366.


Robinson N (1844) A Treatise on the Virtues and Efficacy of a Crust of Bread in Relieving and Curing Disease. WH Perley: Salem, MA.

*** Originally written in the 1700s, republished in 1800s in Salem, Mass

Pesta: The Personification of the Black Plague in Norway


The shadowy figure of Pesta- the plague hag- approaches a farm house. She is clad in a black hood and a red skirt and brings with her the pestilence that decimated Europe in the 14th century. She is the personification of the Black Death. The people in this farm house, though, are comparatively lucky, for she carries with her a rake and not only a broom. If Pesta brings her rake some will survive, passing through the teeth of the rake. If she was instead carrying only her broom, all would perish.

The drawing above was done by Theodor Kittelsen a Norwegian artist born at the end of the 19th century. Kittlesen is most famous for drawing trolls that are common in the Scandinavian folklore, but he also completed a work called “Svartedauen” (Black Death) that is filled with poems and images of the folklore that surrounded the 14th century plague. Pesta is featured prominently in this work.

This type of personification of death and disease is common during the late medieval period. It represents an attempt to explain a horrifying experience. The folklore of the black plague developed through observation of events that must have seemed inexplicable to the people living through them. We can, however, learn something about how the events unfolded through a careful examination of the folklore of Pesta. Folklorist argue that folklore can be true and can be the results of individuals “rationally perceiving a real situation.”  Through the story of Pesta and her path across Norway, we see an attempt to explain the spread of a disease based on actual observations. While the entity of Pesta is not a literal being, we can imagine her as a representation of the microbe that we know today.

Descriptions of Pesta traveling through the countryside trace a path that the disease took. She travels from farm to farm, walks through the countryside and flies over mountains. Perhaps most interestingly, she traveled by boat. When she traveled by boat all of the boatmen fell ill and died. This tale reflects on an event that occurred multiple times during the outbreaks of the black plague. Travel by boat was a common mode of transmission. In fact, plague is believed to have come to Norway via a ghost ship filled with infected rats. The story portrays the boatmen as both victims of Pesta and carriers. They are carriers in the story of a literal entity- Pesta- that brings disease, but they are also carriers in the modern sense of the word, harboring microbes that will be passed on to the populations they encounter. The plague bacteria even shares a similar name- Yersinia pestis. We can trace a similar path by following either the stories of Pesta or the actual Y. pestis arriving via boat.


Holmøy T (2008) Pesta on the Stairs. Academic Medicine 83(1): 74-75.

McNeill L (2013) Folklore Rules: A fun, quick, and useful introduction to the field of academic folklore studies. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

Inglis-Artkell E (Dec 29 2014) Plague Came to Norway in the Creepiest Way Possible. iO9: Gizomodo.

“Theodor Kittelsen”



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