Scotland's first medical book : The author's view
Skeyne's views are typical of the period. They were not original and did not shed any new light on the subject. Indeed many of his comments can be identified in earlier treatises mainly in Latin but also in English. Some of them go back to the great 2nd century Greek physician Galen of Pergamon. These texts were brought back to Scotland by students studying medicine on the Continent.
There was nothing new to be said about the plague: its bacterial cause remained unknown until the end of the 19th century, and there simply was no effective treatment before then. Cures suggested by Skeyne and others include ointments, plasters and mixtures derived from plant and vegetable sources.
Skeyne identified different causes of the plague: among them are stagnant water, filth, unburied carrion, decayed plants and food and infected air or bad miasma, noxious 'bad air'.
However, he maintained: "Certane it is, the first and principal cause may be callit, and is ane scurge and punischment of the maist iust God, without quhais dispositioun in all thingis, vtheris second causis wirkis no thing. So the Heauine quhilk is the admirable instrumēt of God blawis that cōtagion vpone the face of the Earth"
He describes the following symptoms:
"Thair is mony notis quhilkis schauis ane man infectit be pest. First gif the exterior partis of the bodie be caulde, and the interior partis of the bodie vehement hait. As gif the hoill bodie be heavie with oft scharpe punctiounis, stinkand sweiting tyritnes of bodie, detestable brathe with greit difficultie, at sumtyme vehement fever rather on nycht nor day. Greit dolour of heid with heavynes, sollicitude and sadnes of mynd … intolerable thirst, frequent vomiting of divers colouris or great appetite by daylie accustum to Vomit, without effecte: Bitternes of mowth, and toung with blaiknit colour thairof, & greit drouth: frequent puls small and profund quhais urine for the maist part is turbide thik & stinkand … Last of all and maiste certane, gif with constant fever, by the earis, under the oxstaris, or by the secrete membres maist frequentlie apperis a postumis callit Bubones, whithout ony other manifest cause or gif the charbunkil apperis hastelie in ony other part …"
And the cure? "The principal preseruatiue cure of the pest is, to returne to God."
Skeyne also deals with the prevention of the disease. Apart from repentance, he advocates proper sanitation, a healthy regimen and cleanliness.
"In the year 1349 there broke out a universal pestilence …, which lasted a great many years in Scotland. Nearly a third of the population perished in it. It attacked the common people chiefly, not the great. They were attacked with inflammation, and lingered barely four-and-twenty hours. The sovereign remedy is to pay vows to Saint Sebastian."
"In the year 1361, at the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, began the second plague, and it raged until the next ensuing Christmas, wherein likewise nearly a third of mankind paid the debt of nature. King David, however, for fear of that plague, remained in the northern parts of the kingdom until the end thereof."