It’s been a month since my last post, and I must apologize. But I’m sure most of you will appreciate the likely reasons why. It’s been a busy time for so many of us – and not necessarily in a good way.
If ever there was a time in my lifetime when it seemed desirable to escape back into a previous century, this is perhaps it. With elderly parents, other relatives with ‘underlying health conditions’, and a daughter about to graduate as a doctor and move up to the ‘front line’ of the National Health Service (in the, hopefully, hyperbolic in the words of the UK’s prime minister), it’s a worrying time.
But, of course, my century of choice as a historical fiction author – the fifteenth – had its own share of major health traumas. And most of them were probably a deadlier risk to the population as a whole than Covid-19. Life expectancy at birth in the 1400s was between 30 and 40 years, and while endemic disease was probably the main reason for this, epidemics also played their part.
The most notorious pandemic of all during the medieval period was of course the Black Death. Appearing in Europe in 1347/8, it swept through the continent over the next couple of years, killing between a third and a half of the population and changing the face of society and the economy in profound ways. In England the feudal system was fatally wounded as a massively reduced labour force suddenly had more power. Plague reappeared regularly in Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the next few centuries. In the past 200 years its appearance has been intermittent, and modern medicine has resulted in a vaccine and more effective treatment, although plague still occasional wreaks havoc, as in Madagascar in 2014 and 2017.
The year 1485, one of the main years in which my books are set, had its own epidemic – in England known as the ‘sweating sickness’ (or the ‘English sweating sickness’ after the place where it was first recorded, though it soon spread to continental Europe too). No one is quite sure what the disease was caused by, only that its onset was preceded by a sense of apprehension, followed by one to three hours of cold shivers accompanied by aches and fatigue. After this the hot and sweating stage began, along with rapid pulse, delirium, headache and intense thirst – often followed by general collapse and death. One attack could be survived, but provided no immunity to a second or third, which could then prove fatal.
It’s often been suggested that the sweating sickness may have arrived in Britain with the mercenaries who accompanied Henry Tudor from France on his invasion which culminated in the Battle of Bosworth. It was even claimed in the Croyland Chronicle that Lord Stanley used the sickness as his excuse not to join King Richard’s army in the build-up to the battle. The first outbreak in London occurred soon after Tudor arrived at the capital following his victory. There were even rumours at one stage that Tudor himself had died from the illness. By the time the disease disappeared later in the autumn, several thousand people had succumbed to it.
The next major epidemic to hit Europe was syphilis, thought to have been brought back from the Americas by the first European visitors following Columbus. It ultimately became endemic within the population, becoming one of the largest – and most shameful – health burdens throughout Europe.
Always, of course, between these major apocalyptic waves of disease, there was the steady killing of people of all ages and station by the less spectacular illnesses. Until the twentieth century and the advent of antibiotics and relevant vaccines, tuberculosis (also known as consumption) was the biggest killer across the age and social spectrum. High profile deaths from TB include Emily Brontë, maybe her sister Anne, Frederic Chopin, Simon Bolivar and perhaps, Queen Anne Neville, wife and consort of King Richard.
Epidemic and endemic disease has long stalked the land. In centuries past it was an almost constant companion. We in the twenty-first century, especially in the West, are lucky that, with huge advances in medicine and science, it has receded a little more into the distance. The Covid-19 crisis shows that we mustn’t be complacent. None of us knows quite how it will turn out, the effects it will have on us and our communities. But, while I might myself escape from this situation for a while into my sanitized version of the fifteenth century – where my well-to-do characters usually have enough to eat and need fear only the odd traitor and battle – I know where, in reality, I’d rather be.
Stay safe everyone – and, if you’re self-isolating or just shut in most of the day, I hope you manage to stay sane too. And don’t forget this from Matthew Lewis:
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK).
Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at: