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