More Medieval Erudition: Bad Air

Stemming from the Classical period, and running through both the Medieval and Renaissance periods through even to the mid to late 19th century, was the idea that diseases were caused by areas of “bad air”, also known as misasma. Though this was disproven in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the germ theory of disease was established and proven (to just about everybody, it seems, except Bill Maher), it was the prevalent explanation of epidemics such as cholera, plague, malaria (from the Italian, mala + aria, literally “bad air”) and the like for most of recorded history. Including, of course, those periods of history that are the basis for most fantasy RPGs.

Miasma was caused, the theory went, by poisonous fumes emanating from both venomous animals (snakes, etc.) and decomposing bodies. These elements, sometimes called ‘effluviums’, were the actual things responsible for diseases. The air itself was literally the cause of disease.

In this way, the foul smell of air around marshes and swamps, and on some rivers (such as the Thames in London) was seen as indicative of its nature as the source of disease.

It’s easy to see this applied to a fantasy RPG. Those entering certain areas, particularly those adjacent to areas of stagnant, foetid water, or those frequented by poisonous snakes and other creatures, would be more likely to be struck by a disease of some sort. This is actually already reflected in the AD&D rules, which give modifiers to those in crowded cities and in marshes, making them more likely to contract some sort of disease. Too, the areas around certain temples dedicated to the princes of daemonkind would be similar hotspots of disease. Such places could be combatted, not with disinfectant, but with strong winds to blow away the disease-causing miasma…

Ironically, the misasma theory of disease did lead to some sanitation-related health reforms, due in part to false connections between improved sanitation and the remittance of disease. But it wasn’t until germs and viruses were really discovered to be the cause of such diseases that surface disinfecting became the norm, as we see today.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “More Medieval Erudition: Bad Air

  1. Excellent topic. I'm thinking there are lots of ways to incorporate this into a D&D game, such as free-floating miasma zones in dungeons or a spell miasmic cloud.

  2. And, of course, people sometimes wore packets of scented herbs over their faces in an attempt to protect themselves from the miasma.

  3. I like the connection between this and the foul vapors of the Mythic Underworld. Definitely some work to do there.

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