The Six Strangest Medieval Diseases

Image of boy infected with scrofula

Image of boy infected with scrofula

6.  The King’s Evil

(Existed throughout the Middle Ages)

The Problem:  Black, painless masses of the king’s evil covered the necks of suffers.  The masses multiplied over time and often ruptured resulting in large open sores.  Even stranger than the disease was the proposed cure.  People believed the royal touch of the king cured sufferers of their symptoms.  The Book of Common, an Anglican prayer book, included a ceremony in which the king or queen would hand a person afflicted with the king’s evil a coin with an angel on it in order to cure the disease.  It is also documented that King Henry the IV of France touched and cured 1,500 sufferers of the ailment.

The Cause:  Tuberculosis.  This type of tuberculosis is called scrofula and is not the kind of tuberculosis known to most because it infects the lymph nodes.  It is hard for the scientific-minded to believe that the touch of a monarch would cure such a disease and whether sufferers were actually cured by this is certainly debatable.

5.  Water Elf Disease (Existed throughout the Middle Ages)

The Problem:  Sufferers of this strangely named disease, developed sores, blackened nails, and watery eyes.  It was believed to be caused by a witch’s stab.  Much like the king’s evil, this disease had some fantastic treatments which call for giving the victim a dozen different plants and herbs, soaking him in ale, and then singing the first song below three times and the latter repeatedly.

“I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase, nor sores deepen. But may he himself keep in a healthy way. May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear.

“May earth bear on you with all her might and main.”

The Cause:  Unknown

Detail of Bosch painting illustrating a victim of St. Anthony's fire

Detail of Bosch painting illustrating a victim of St. Anthony’s fire

4.  St. Anthony’s Fire Epidemic of Paris (945 A.D.)

The Problem:  The people of Paris were plagued with great sores which encompassed their limbs. To which the only cure was a trip to St. Mary’s church in Paris where Duke Hugh the Great, Count of Paris nourished the ill with his own holy stores of grain.  The ill were quickly cured, but as soon as they returned home they came back down with the terrible sores.

The Cause:  Ergot poisoning.  Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye during cold, damp conditions.  When the grain is ground up and then made into bread, people consume the fungus and poisoning ensues.  There are three different types of ergotism: gangrenous, convulsive, and hallucinogenic.  In the case of the Paris epidemic, sufferers were stricken with the gangrenous type of ergotism.  So why were they cured when they went St. Mary’s?  The answer is quite simple.  Duke Hugh’s stores of grain were better maintained, and therefore, not contaminated with ergot so when people ate his grains their ergotism went away, but as soon as they returned home they consumed their contaminated grain causing them to once again come down with the poisoning.

Medical photo of a man suffering with pustular syphilis

Medical photo of a man suffering with pustular syphilis

3.  The French Disease (1490’s)

The Problem:  During the siege of Naples in 1493 a strange disease spread quickly from the French to the Italians causing sores at the site of infection, which later spread.  Victims ended up covered with dark green, pussy boils which burned horribly.  The disease eventually effected the mental capacities, leading to insanity.  Because it wasn’t until the French invasion, the illness became known as the French disease.  It quickly spread throughout Europe, but within fifty years symptoms of the disease became sufficiently mild.

The Cause:  Syphillis.  The people of Europe had no immunity to this sexually transmitted disease and so the first epidemic had the worst symptoms.  Some hypothesize the syphilis originally came from Native Americans and was brought to the French soliders by Spanish sailors who had been to the New World, but that is debatable.  So why did the symptoms become so mild so quickly?  That is quite simple.  It was easy to identify anyone with the disease and no one would have sex with them.  Only strains with milder symptoms began to spread because they weren’t as easy to identify.

dancing-death-324x2052.  The Dancing Plague (7th, 14th, and 16th centuries)

The Problem:  The two best documented cases of the dancing plague took place in Aachen, starting on June 23, 1374, and later in July 1518 in Strasbourg.  The 14th century outbreak spread throughout Germany and then into France, Holland, and Italy.   People afflicted with the disease would dance uncontrollably.  The Strasbourg outbreak, started with one woman named Frau Troffea.  Within four days, more than thirty people joined her.  By the end of the week, the number rose to four hundred.  People danced constantly for weeks, dying of heart attack, stroke, dehydration, or exhaustion.  The supposed cure to the ailment according to physicians of the time:  more dancing.   Towns hired musicians and built stages to encourage the sick to continue the dancing, which probably didn’t help matters.  Also, the Dancing Plague was thought to be brought on by St. Vitus and St. John.  This may have encouraged the well to join in with the sick because they wanted to be touched by the saints.

The Cause:  Unknown.  Eugene Backman sugguests ergot poisioning to be the culprit in his book, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. There certainly are types of ergot that cause hallucinations and strange behavior.  I, for one, find this hard to believe.  Since ergot poisoning is caused by ingesting ergot-tainted rye, then rye would have to have been tainted throughout all of Europe during the 14th century for this hypothesis to be true. Since the disease seemed to spread from a central location over time, it seems more likely that the culprit would have been a contagion rather than a fungus.  Some suppose that Sydenham’s chorea, also known as St. Vitus dance, was the cause.  Symptoms of this disease, caused by a strep bacteria, usually take a considerable amount of time to demonstrate, six months or more, but sometimes the rapid jerking of the face, hands, and feet associated with the disease can sometimes be the first symptom. Historian John Waller, author of the A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, has the strangest hypothesis.  He believes that the dancing plague was caused by a “mass psychogenic illness,” brought on by severe stress due to famine, illnesses, and the belief that, when angered, a Sicilian martyr by the name of Saint Vitus would cause these dancing plagues.

  1. The Sleeping Sickness of King Henry the VI of England (1453-1471)
King Henry VI of England

King Henry VI of England

The Problem:  In 1453, while in his young thirties, King Henry VI of England slipped into a catatonic state after a supposed sudden fright.  His first trance lasted over a year and a half, but he slipped in and out of this odd mental state for the rest of his life.  During his first lapse, Henry was asleep and could not be roused by even torture, feeling no pain.  When he came out of the catatonic state, he was said to be very agreeable, devout, and childlike.  He often did not recognize people whom he had known for years.  His inability to rule caused him to lose his throne to the Yorks during the famous War of the Roses.  He died in the Tower of England.  It is suspected he was murdered so that no one would continue to fight for his cause.

The Cause:  Unknown.  This is one of the greatest medical mysteries in all of history.  Some suppose that Henry suffered from a catatonic schizophrenia since he illustrated paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and hallucinations before slipping into his unresponsive state. It is also hypothesized that Henry’s illness is heredity since his grandfather, Charles VI, had similar symptoms throughout his life.   Unlike Henry, Charles also suffered from physical symptoms, such as fevers, hair loss, and loss of fingernails.  However, strange illnesses were frequent during the Middle Ages and this could have been completely separate from his mental illness.  Like his grandson, Charles VI suffered extended bouts of insanity alternated with periods of lucidity.  He once murdered four of his own men before being tackled to the ground and then slipped into a coma for two days.


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