The “sweating sickness” that plagued England in 1485, and again in 1506, 1511, 1517, 1528, and finally, for the last time, in 1552, was probably caused by a novel virus. Modern epidemiologists believe that “the sweat,” as it was known in early modern England, may have been similar to modern hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a disease spread via mouse feces that causes respiratory failure.
There are obvious similarities between the epidemic facing England in 1485 and the pandemic facing us in 2020, but most troubling of these may be that we are falling prey to the same failures in communication and errors in judgment. Despite all that has changed in 500 years, not least of which is the development of modern medicine, our ability to weather covid-19 may depend on learning from the mistakes of the past.
Over the course of five outbreaks, from 1485 to 1528, not a single pamphlet, book, or bill of information on “the sweat” was printed for English people. By contrast, in Italy, cities responded to disease outbreaks by disseminating “plague orders” for quarantine measures and publishing records of who had died, when and where to keep track of the illness’s spread. The printing press arrived in England 10 years before “the sweat,” so royal authorities might have printed recommendations for public health and published information about fatalities. They did not.
The only printed reference to the first outbreak in 1485 appears in Latin, the language of the educated and elite, in a book published in France by a French doctor. The majority of printed materials on “the sweat” are in German, written by municipal doctors in German cities after the illness spread to the continent in 1528-9. But whereas cities in France, Germany and Italy had municipal medical authorities to deal with outbreaks, most educated physicians in England worked at court for the nobility. Though they must have tended their wealthy patients fighting “the sweat,” none of them wrote about their experiences for the public.
The media — in this case, English printers — stepped into the gap left by Crown officials and licensed doctors. The first medical book printed in English, a “little book necessary … against the pestilence,” was published by William de Machlinia around 1485, probably as a direct response to “the sweat.” But this wasn’t a book about the new mystery illness. It was a regimen for preventing the bubonic plague. Such niceties didn’t matter to English people seeking knowledge in the midst of a crisis. They bought so many copies that the book went through three consecutive editions in the span of two years. It wasn’t until 1552, the last outbreak of the sweating sickness, that John Caius finally published a book offering “instruction, preparation and defense, against the sudden coming, and fearful assaulting” of the sweating sickness for “Englishmen not learned.”
The total lack of information and leadership from royal, civic or medical authorities in England meant that English people made their own faulty assumptions about the risks of infection. Whether rich or poor, foreign or native, humble or powerful, nearly everyone was certain that “the sweat” was a concern for other people, not one that they would confront themselves.
For example, during the outbreak of 1517, the Venetian ambassador to England wrote to his boss in Italy that “the sweat” only afflicted “natives,” not “strangers,” or foreigners. When the illness spread to the English city of Calais but no farther into France, rumors again swirled that the illness only afflicted English people. Until, of course, “the sweat” swept through Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Baltic region in 1528-29, killing thousands.
Among the English, popular opinion held that “the sweat” was a disease of the rich. The illness was often called the “stop-gallant,” a reference to the common belief that the young and wealthy were especially susceptible. Despite the nickname, records from outbreaks in 1509 and 1517 cite thieves dying of “the sweat” in the streets and household servants struck by the illness just as often as their masters.
Finally, those in power assumed something of the opposite — that their wealth and privilege would see them through. King Henry VIII’s secretary, Andrea Ammonio, believed he was “well protected against the contagion by his modest manner of life” even though he knew many “whose whole household had suffered.” Sir Thomas More, author of “Utopia,” remembered Ammonio boasting of his invincibility just “hours before he himself was carried off,” another victim of the outbreak of 1517.
Like people in 15th- and 16th-century England, Americans are struggling to come to grips with the impact of covid-19 on their lives. Both the federal government and the CDC have failed to communicate clearly to the public, just as English authorities did over 500 years ago. Just as in early modern England, nonexperts have stepped into the gap, with conservative commentators downplaying the risks of the illness and politicians directly contradicting public health experts.
As a result of these failures, Americans are just as sure as 15th-century Londoners that covid-19 will only affect other people. Before being closed by authorities, bars and restaurants from New York to Los Angeles were filled with patrons, despite warnings from state and local officials that social distancing is the only way to prevent a serious public health emergency.
Reactions to the spread of covid-19 over the past week have demonstrated how little human nature has changed in 500 years. But Americans today, like the English then, are not invincible. The English sweating sickness killed rich and poor, foreign and native. Covid-19 has likewise killed rich and poor in communities across the globe. We are in a unique position to learn from the mistakes of the past, to resist the temptation to deny the serious threat this virus poses and significantly alter the course of covid-19 in our own communities. Covid-19 is not a disease for other people to handle. It is up to all of us to act.