I hope you are all at home and isolated and hunkered down with all the essentials you need so that we can flatten the COVID-19 curve. I also hope your heads are in a good place – able to concentrate on something more calming than the latest news flash (or at least enjoy some of the great memes that are circulating). This is not the first time the world has been faced with a deadly pandemic. And bad as things may seem right now, I keep repeating to myself: this is not as dangerous or as communicable as the plague….and we have wi-fi.
Plague killed sixty percent of its victims in three days. The sweating sickness also killed in three days, but if you made it through the first twenty-four hours, you would survive. With measles and smallpox, it would take about a week to find out if you were going to be one of the 3-25% who died. All of these have been virtually eradicated with vaccines, and have become more easy to treat with antibiotics.
We are also luckier with our quarantines. Yes they had them back then – they knew that disease spread person to person (just look at how the plague doctors were completely covered – with long coats and gloves and cone-shaped masks that made them look like buzzards circling around the dead) even though they thought it had something to do with smells. The sick were confined to their houses until they recovered or died – and watchmen patrolled the streets to enforce it (though apparently they could be bribed). Family members tending to the sick were pretty likely to catch it – worsening the horrible human toll.
And they absolutely practiced social distancing. Henry was famously averse to germs. In June 1528, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies fell sick with the sweating sickness that was sweeping England, so Anne was packed off to Hever (she got it and recovered) while Henry and Catherine hid away in the country with a greatly reduced household. And in 1536, Jane’s coronation was delayed when they learned that a plague victim had visited Westminster Abbey (though Henry may also have been waiting to see whether she bore him a son…). Later in life, Henry basically closed off his rooms to courtiers, allowing only a small number of people in.
I have to believe that, like us, most of their conversations during an outbreak would revolve around the disease, with lots of talk about preventatives and remedies. Pomanders and packets of herbs were said to guard against sickness – Elizabeth almost always carried one (though she also had a real thing against noxious odors, so perhaps she had a double motive). And The Six Wives of Henry VIII had a wonderful scene where Cranmer told a pregnant Jane Seymour that parsley was “a sure remedy against the pestilence” before sighing, “Ah, at Lambeth, they die at my gate.”
As for remedies, they certainly had some interesting ones. To treat smallpox, you would wrap the victim in red flannel and lay them before a roaring fire to sweat it out. For more general sickness, you could hang a large dried toad around your neck to draw the noxious vapors out of your body (since like attracts like). I have no interest in either of those cures, though I am trying to find the recipe for the medieval antibiotic that was making the rounds several months ago (please leave a link in the comments if you remember!). While I am holed up here, it would be fun to create a concoction just in case! Or perhaps just a good Tudor recipe…
The bottom line is, I am profoundly grateful to be alive right now, instead of back then. I am also profoundly grateful to the courageous men and women performing essential services who are giving us all the ability to sit and isolate ourselves. I wish all of us health and safety.
Now, go wash your hands.
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