In our wheezing, sniffly, Covid world it can be difficult to recall that pandemics are nothing new. Waves of disease have sept across the world since the dawn of mankind, generally un-noted by history due to the insufficiently pale complexion of the majority of their victims. However, even Europe has not been left unaffected.
Bubonic Plague has long been popular on the continent. Up to 200 million people so enjoyed the 14th century Black Death that they couldn’t bear to go without it when the Yersinia Pestis finally exhausted itself in 1353. As one can never have too much of a good thing, plague returned for an encore in the 16th century, with a revival in the West End of London being enjoyed terminally by over 20,000 happy punters. This triumph swiftly transferred to the Alhambra Theatre, Tenerife where another 10,000 went to grave swearing that it was the finest malady they’d ever suffered. Soon plague-fever gripped the continent, gathering 3,000 ardent Maltese fans in 1592 before popular demand saw it return to London to claim another 20,000 devotees while simultaneously gripping Spanish audiences of up to half a million before embarking on regular tours of the major cities of France, Italy and Germany, even venturing to the New World and to China.
But for all the popularity of swollen lymph nodes, wracking pain and terminal fevers we should not ignore the affection that Europeans have had for other pathogens over the years; some of which were widespread, some of which were specific to certain regions of the continent due to the revolting practices common in those distinct regions.
With the exception of HRH Prince Andrew, the English have a famous penchant for perspiration and it is not for nothing that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is known to her family as 'Sweaty Betty' - though there is no truth in the rumour that this condition is in any way genetic.
On any given Saturday night, millions of young Brits can be found on the dance-floors of the nation's night-clubs, joyfully sweating out the ten pints of Stella they consumed over the previous three hours - just as their ancestors once sweated out mead while dancing round a bonfire centuries ago when there wasn't even an age of consent for minor royals to worry about. Perhaps no nation on Earth is better prepared for the loss of half their body fluid between the hours of midnight and 4 am since where else could one be so certain that one's skin would reabsorbed a gallon of rainwater while waiting in the subsequent taxi queue?
Between 1485 and 1551 multiple outbreaks of this peculiarly British phenomenon saw up to 25,000 plucky Brits slip from this mortal coil, unable to maintain their grip on life due to the lubricating properties of the copious diaphoretic secretions caused by The English Sweating Sickness. While well-born ladies of the kingdom gently glowed themselves into the grave, the peasantry were subject to the sort of sudden violent cold shivers, weakness of limbs and giddiness that are more usual in queues pre-teen girls waiting for a One Direction concert. And shortly thereafter they would experience the panic and sense of existential dread felt by all fathers accompanying their daughters to the gig. Within three hours the cold stage would give way to hot-sweating, delirium and intense thirst. Mercifully, exhaustion, collapse and death generally arrived swiftly thereafter, sparing the afflicted the ironically named encore; “Best Song Ever”.
Little is known for sure about the causes of the English Sweating Sickness. Some scientists suspect a minor hemorrhagic fever akin to a less deadly form of Ebola, others an unknown pathogen that has since become extinct, while others yet suspect that, in an age before the invention anti-perspirant, the English predilection for unnecessary worrying simply got the better of them. However, it is very, very, very clear that none of the current British Royal family have this disease, much less would they lower themselves to either eat at a Pizza Hut or to visit Woking - not even if was wall-to-wall jail-bait.
The Sweating Sickness, like tasty beer and Brexit, was only appreciated by Brits. By contrast, like Johnny Halliday, Water Elf Disease was inexplicably popular in the northwestern Europe and had an equally devastating impact on the mental health of those afflicted. Hundreds of thousands of medieval Parisians, Marseillais and Toulousains contracted the condition over the centuries in which it was recorded, causing Pope Pendulous to declare it "God's judgement on the French. May he have no mercy".
Fans of Water Elf Disease affected blackened fingernails, a distant look in the eyes, poor skin and suffered from overwhelming ennui, almost exactly like that Emo girl you tried to date in College. As with modern day Goths, those with Water Elf Disease could only be brought back to a healthy state by vigorous exorcism and the internal & external application of industrial volumes of alcohol, often in the form of Claret or disappointing cocktails with names such as Bat-Cave, Absinthe Friend or Nuclear Fallout. Like that Emo girl, sufferers were generally shunned by decent memebers of society, rarely ate and often spent up to 18 hours a day in bed - but not with you.
Though Water Elf Disease itself was rarely fatal, many sufferers found them going to an early grave as heretics, having admitted to worshipping at the altar of The Cure. No permanent solution to the Water Elf epidemic was ever found but doctors eventually prescribed a number of prophylactic measures that have largely kept the disease at bay since 1465, including adopting garlic-infused striped shirts and berets as national costume, the regular consumption of creatures not usually considered food beyond Alsace, the avoidance of soap and 3 hour working week punctuated by regular smoking breaks with 65 days a year paid annual holidays.
While the source of this disease remains unknown, it shares similar symptoms with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valve, caused when bacteria infecting one part of the body spread through the bloodstream. Howvever, leading epidemiologists think the link tenuous as Frenchmen are known not to have hearts and, were they found with one, would certainly eat it.
Water Elf Disease should not be confused with The French Disease, a virulent, sexually transmitted infection that caused sores which rapidly became painful, green, pus-filled boils which spread across victims’ bodies. This affliction first infected the Italian population of Naples duringa French invasion in 1493 but became known as the French disease as, over a number of years, it affected the mental capacities of its victims.
Like Disco, the Dancing Plague was periodically and inexplicably popular across the continent, with outbreaks in 7th, 14th and 16th centuries coinciding with the release of the first, third and sixth album by the Bee Gees. Thankfully, due to advances in medical science, a recurrence of Dancing Plague is now thought to be no more likely than a Bee Gees reunion.
The best documented outbreak of Dancing Plague began in Aachen, Germany on June 23rd 1374. According to traditional accounts, a small group of peasants - a few dressed in sequined jump-suits and chest wigs, with the majority in traditional Brown Shirts - goose-stepped unstoppably around the city, their right arms pointed upwards at forty-five degrees. As with many German entertainments, this strange procession was often accompanied by the lynching of Gypsies, burning of Torah scrolls and annexation of the Sudetenland
Eventually, thousands of men were caught up in the mania, marching themselves into a state of exhaustion across the Low Countries, France, Scandinavia and Poland, pausing only to pay their respects at local synagogues. Few hardy souls survived their infection for the full six years of the pandemic, which was first checked in North Africa by the visiting English Eighth Army, whose inability to move with any sort of rhythm offered almost complete immunity. The last of the sufferers shuffled to their graves in the snowy wastes of Russia where they were unable to face the plunging temperatures or match the moves of the local Cossack dancers.
Modern scholars have suggested that the ingestion of Ergot (known as "E" by the peasantry) may account for the Dancing Plague. Wet Summers have been shown to lead to the growth of this fungus on crops and even small quantities of Ergot are known to produce enough psychedelic compounds to keep a commune of hippies on their backs for a month. However, if miserable, rainy summers explain Dancing Sickness it remains a mystery why the plague never reached Scotland or Ireland.
As for treatment, the only known cure for Dancing Plague was the so-called ‘Chill-Out Church’. Here priests would attempt to calm the afflicted with prayer, Holy Water and ambient music with fewer than 100 beats per minute. Many patients chose death rather than face this horrific form of therapy.
Fortunately, there have been no further outbreaks of Dancing Plague in Europe Since 1945, though signs of a resurgence on the streets of Washington, D.C. at the start of 2021 suggest that the imminent Covid vaccination programme may not be the end of all our troubles.
Royal Sleeping Sickness - Northern Europe
In 1453, while still a young man Henry visited the Lancashire town of Chorlton-cum-Dumpsta when panic gripped him at the thought of losing his Income Tax exemption. Soon he had slipped into a trance which continued to affect him for eighteen months, a time described by noted historian, Willy Eckerslike, as “Perhaps the period of best governance England would enjoy until the emergence of Theresa May.”
Pioneering psycho-therapists opted against electro-convulsive therapy on the grounds that its side-effects were unknown and because electricity would remain undiscovered for another four centuries. Henry only emerged from his trance after several weeks of a choir of sixty Franciscan Friars shouting "Pull yourself together, man" at the top of their lungs in his bed-chamber at two minute intervals. Sadly, Henry was never the same. Contemporary chroniclers now described him as a compliant, meek, childlike character unable to recognise even members his own family. Nobles of the ruling families immediately cast doubt on his ability to govern, pointing to his lack of support for traditional English foreign policy of annoying the Scots and killing Frenchmen, his refusal to partake in popular English sports such as annoying the Scots and killing Frenchmen, his heretical belief that God could be anything other than English, and his refusal to accept that the only thing better than killing Frenchmen is annoying a Scot by killing his French friends.
It is suspected that Henry may have inherited his psychiatric condition from his Grandfather, Charles VI of France who believed himself to be made of glass and wrapped himself in blankets for fear of fracturing his buttocks. Henry, in an unusual gesture of patriotism, considered himself made of Roast Beef and insisted on being regularly publicly dusted with mustard and bathed in gravy. So popular was the ritual that he may have avoided his eventual usurpation by Edward IV had he only insisted on having himself wrapped in dead Frenchmen instead.
Other common sickness that have swept our fair continent are more explicable.
St Anthony’s Fire caused 10th century Parisians to become violently sick and to suffer from burning sores on their limbs. Sometimes also attributed to Ergot-poisoning, this disease was easily treated by switching uncontaminated grain-supplies, a diet rich in baguettes and cheese, and by three hours of vigorous shrugging whilst nonchalantly exclaiming “Bof!”. During more recent outbreaks of St Anthony’s fire early-modern French sufferers have refused such traditional treatments insisting on their rights to “Mon skin, Mon Choice!” while marching along the Champs-Élysées chanting “Stop the Scratch”.
The Barking Nuns of the 15th Century are thought to have been victims of mere Mass Hysteria. This famous affliction began in 1491 when a French Sister began to Meow like a cat. Villagers in surrounding communities were perplexed by the noise, her perpetual scratching of the furniture and by her refusal to use the litter-tray. Eventually, troops were stationed around the convent and dozens of nuns willingly submitted themselves to be lightly scourged by the young soldier, prolonging the outbreak by many months since so many of the sufferers required multiple courses of treatment before being cured.
As news of the outbreak and its cure spread to other convents nun across Europe reportedly began to yap like dogs, chirp like birds, grunt like hogs and, inexplicably, to mimic the as then undiscovered and mute Manatee. In Augsburg, sisters were reported to howl at the moon, to bark at the postman and to bite the cassocks of visiting priests under thirty years old. This hysteria finally subsided only when Pope Dubious XIIth rubbed their bellies, scratched them behind the ears and issued a Papal Bull declaring that they were “Good girls. Yes, you are!”
Scrofula (The King’s Evil) is an unpleasant tuberculotic infection of the lymph nodes that results in black lesions on the neck for which the only cure is the touch of the King’s hand. Many millions of Europeans eschewed this sure cure over the centuries, stating that the King’s touch was a “rushed untested treatment of unknown efficacy”, that “verily, ye roll-out of ye King’s touch is another attempt to take away ye personal freedoms of our serfs and villeins, just like ye introduction of ye printing press and 5G carrier pigeons”, and that “these painful, suppurating lesions are God’s painful, suppurating lesions with which thou hast no right to interfere.”
- Not to be confused with Henry V part 2.