Again last week I had to nurse a poorly toddler as he was sent home from nursery with yet another variety of stomach upset. There is, I’m told, something going around. I need to confess here to being a terrible hypochondriac. When I worked in an office I hated it when people used to come in, green-faced, and that say that they’d been ‘up all night’ being sick. In my mind, it is only a matter of time before this thing finds its way to me! If I read on the internet (as has recently occurred) that the norovirus has closed hospital wards anywhere near where I live, the sense of a creeping tide of contagion gets worse. In fact, there always seems to be something ‘going around’.
Talking to a colleague last week, we were speculating about whether the same conception was true in the early modern period – whether people believed that the same nasty bit of pathogenics was doing the rounds. It would be interesting to know whether early modern people had any sense of one particular ‘bug’.
In some ways this seems unlikely. Humoural beliefs held that illness was a personal thing; it was one’s own humoural balance that generally dictated sensitivity and vulnerability to sickness. If, for example, someone was naturally sanguine (i.e. had a predominance of blood in their humoural makeup) that made them naturally more susceptible to apoplexy, plethora and venery!
But there certainly was some conception of a sickness that moved around populations; what, after all, were epidemics of plague and smallpox if not mobile and progressive conditions? But it also seems clear that people were aware of flare-ups of particular diseases or conditions in their vicinity. The letters of Owen Davies, an Anglesey parson in the early eighteenth century, certainly reveal evidence of this, noting episodes of epidemic fevers in his area. The diarist Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire referred to an outbreak of fever in seventeenth-century Glamorganshire, which was particularly affecting children. In fact, when we look closely, there was a constant dialogue about illness, and people were ever vigilant for what sorts of things might affect them.
If we think about domestic recipe/remedy collections (books of favoured remedies sometimes accumulated in literate households), it is possible to see them as part of a domestic arsenal against sickness. They were in some ways a pragmatic response to disease; it made sense to have some sort of weaponry in your arsenal to attack whatever symptoms you might have. In other ways though, they were also an insurance policy. They provided at least some means of recourse in an environment where sickness was almost always lurking. And it wasn’t just remedies that were written down; people simply knew remedies, and were able to memorise and internalise information in a way that in today’s internet-dominated world we would find impressive.
The terminology of sickness has certainly shifted. When people in the past referred to the local presence of conditions, it is more likely that they were referring to something deadly, rather than a minor stomach upset. Nevertheless, something of the fear of contagion must be innate. While we might not all regard ‘bugs’ to the same degree of pathological hatred as I do, we feel uncomfortable when sickness gets too close.
Now where’s my antibacterial spray? This keyboard looks filthy…