The medieval world was rife with contagious diseases, and cities were especially vulnerable. Between poor sanitation, lack of adequate hygiene, and overcrowding, urban dwellers were most at risk from contagions than swept through with the speed of prairie grass fires. Such health risk factors made the medieval era one of history’s most dangerous periods, especially for city people. Add mediocre standards of medical care and knowledge, and it is no surprise that life expectancy back then was abysmally low. Among the worst diseases was leprosy, which devastated sufferers’ health as well as their social status. A little misunderstood disease even today, leprosy carried a huge stigma in the Middle Ages.
Lepers were shunned and cast not just out of cities, but from even the smallest hamlets. The stigma did not end with death, but carried through into the afterlife, as lepers were denied burial alongside non-lepers. Mostly thanks to Leviticus 13:44-46, which reads: “He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Holy Fire, also known as Saint Anthony’s Fire, was one of the more colorfully named medieval diseases. It was named after the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony, who were particularly successful in the treatment of those struck by the disease. Modern medicine, not given to colorful names, knows it as ergotism. Quaint name aside, it was a horrible illness whose victims suffered greatly. Caused by fungus that grows on moldy grains, especially rye, Saint Anthony’s Fire produced swelling, redness, and gangrene in the unfortunates afflicted with it.
A ninth century text described it as: “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death”. Sufferers often hallucinated, and sometimes imagined that they were in a fight with the Devil. As the disease progressed, convulsions occurred, extremities began to rot, and ears, fingers, toes, and even arms and legs, began to fall off. In 944, about 40,000 died from an outbreak in France. As a contemporary put it: “The afflicted thronged to the churches and invoked the saints. The cries of those in pain and the shedding of burned-up limbs alike excited pity; the stench of rotten flesh was unbearable”.
In the late medieval era, a new disease known as the “sweating sickness” suddenly emerged, first in England, and from there, it spread to continental Europe. A mysterious illness, the sweating sickness struck in epidemic waves over a seven-decade period, then vanished just as suddenly as it had emerged. Little if anything is known about the incubation period, but when the symptoms cropped up, they and their consequences were sudden, and usually devastating: death frequently occurred within just a few hours.
Initial symptoms included a sense of dread, followed by shivering, headaches, giddiness, exhaustion, nausea, and severe pains in the neck, back, shoulders, and limbs. Then came the symptom that gave the disease its name: copious sweat. That was often accompanied by abdominal pains and delirium. Severe symptoms typically lasted for 15 to 21 hours, and often culminated in a coma or death. Unusual among medieval illnesses – or illnesses of any age, for that matter – the sweating sickness disproportionately struck the upper classes. Today, various theories ascribe the mysterious disease to hantavirus, influenza, typhus, or botulism. However, there is no definitive answer yet as to just what the sweating sickness might have been.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading