Saturday, 14 May 2005
Diseases in Elizabethan London
Necrosis of finger tips caused by septicemic plague
When people get to 40 or 50 year old nowadays, we consider them middle-aged. In Elizabethan times you were lucky if you got past the age of 30. The poor however, were not expected to live longer than 20, at the most 25. Thomas Paynel wrote in 1541: "nowadays, alas, if a man may approach to forty of sixty years men repute him happy and fortunate". Indeed, if you got to live past the age of 40, you were thought to be extremely old, as old as people over 100 seem to us today.
Life was short and riddled with suffering. Diseases ran wild and the plague was as much a part of everyday life as having a cold is today. In Elizabethan times a plague epidemic occured roughly every four years. It was something you knew would come but you didn't know exactly when and where it would strike. Laws in 1568 decreed that an affected person's house had to be shut up for a minimum of twenty days, all windows and doors boarded up and nobody allowed to get out. Of course there were people who were specialu appointed to go around these houses every so often and deliver food and provisions, but who knows if they really did as they were mostly unsupervised.
Face disfigured by smallpox
Smallpox was another dreadful disease endemic in London and in October 1562 even Queen Elizabeth I got it. Of course she survived with little scarring, (she was said to have the constitution of an ox), but her lady in waiting, Lady Sidney, who was taking care of her while she was sick, cought the smallpox as well. She got it so bad that the disease left her face and body hideously scarred with pockmarks, so she never appeared in public at Court again.
Then there was syphilis, which arrived in Europe from America, via Christopher Columbus's ships (Columbus's men in turn gave measles to the natives). Syphilis had not caused any problems to humans until it was moved to Europe and then it became virulent, aggressive and fatal. In addition to all the above, there was scurvy, a condition brought about by a diet lacking in Vitamin C, Malaria, which thrived in the marshes in the south bank of the Thames (a great breeding ground for mosquitoes), and of course a whole load of other diseases, most easily cured nowadays but fatal in those days.
I would not like to have been alive then...
Posted by Anna at Saturday, May 14, 2005