There are so many bugs running through a city near us that they had to quarantine the local homeless shelter. Simply covering our mouths and washing our hands (every time we have to cover said mouth or touch something shareable) would go a long way toward slowing the spread of the illnesses, but sometimes the fact of so many people driven inside under together conditions beyond their control just provides the perfect breeding ground for all those nasty germs.
Sick as a Horse
Horses are said to be extremely sick at their stomachs, from being unable to relieve themselves by vomiting. Bracken, indeed, in his Farriery, gives an instance of that evacuation being procured, but by a means which he says would make the Devil vomit. Such as may have occasion to administer an emetic either to the animal or the fiend, may consult his book for the recipe.
There were myriad illnesses running around during the Regency era. This week, I’ll look at the diseases; next, the cures, folk remedies, and outright snake oil scams for them.
This is the somewhat obscure term for malaria; some texts will also refer to this as miasma. Doctors first ascribed the cause of the ague to unwholesome or poisonous air, but a little research soon showed mosquitoes (brought back from the great English fleet traveling to the West Indies) to be the common denominator. It turns out mosquitoes loved the marshlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, too. This illness was characterized by chills, shivering, fever, and sweating. The ague existed in England until the mid 19th century, when proper drainage helped eradicate the disease (if you’re watching Victoria, thank Prince Albert and his fascination with sewage systems).
Otherwise known as a stroke. Apoplexy resulted in a sudden fit of paralysis and dizziness. The prefix of the word – apo – meant ‘to strike or hit,’ indicating both the unexpected and ferocious nature of this condition. The results of apoplexy could bring death, while recovery usually involved some incapacitation, such as paralysis, palsy (tremors), or inability to speak. Many died within hours of the attack. Bloodletting, the go-to remedy for all ailments, was believed to help the patient. Survivors were sometimes mistaken as mad due to their inability to speak or control bodily functions, and those without means were consigned to asylums.
It’s odd to me how this word has also come to mean extreme anger, such as an ‘apoplectic rage.’
This term was applied as loosely as today’s ‘flu.’ During the Regency, it meant anyone suffering from fever, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, and was blamed on a disorder of the bile.
If you had a disorder of the liver or gallbladder, with accompanying gastric pain, this was your illness. Bile was not to be messed around with, evidently.
This devastating ulcer could destroy the cheek, lips, tongue, palate, or face, and was often fatal (friendly tip: do not Google this for pictures). It was most often seen in children between the ages of two and five, and was caused by poor hygiene and poor nutrition. Damage was usually irreversible and could even lead to gangrene.
This term is most often seen in novels as the Regency equivalent of the head cold, a disease characterized by ‘inflammation of, and discharge from, a mucous membrane’ in a body cavity or in the airways, but catarrh could be so much more. Bronchial catarrh was bronchitis, epidemic catarrh was influenza, suffocative catarrh was croup, urethral catarrh was gleet, and vaginal catarrh was leukorrhea, according to Geri Walton. For some reason, I always picture an elderly, but stern, aunt telling all how she suffers so from catarrh…but not really.
Consumption was the common name for tuberculosis, meaning a “wasting of the body by disease; wasting disease, progressive emaciation,” which replaced the old terms “the evil disease” and phthsis. There was no effective treatment for the disease. Spread through the air, saliva, and blood, it caused weakness, fatigue, fever, chills, night sweats, wracking cough, and spitting up blood. However, in the latter stages of the disease, sufferers experienced a burst of energy and creativity, leading many to call it a “romantic disease.” British poet Lord Byron wrote, “I should like to die from consumption,” helping to popularize the disease as the disease of artists (the pretty-boy fool). George Sand doted on her phthisic lover, Frédéric Chopin, calling him her “poor melancholy angel“. The disease killed more people in Britain in the 1800’s than smallpox, measles, typhus, whooping cough, and scarlet fever combined, and it came to be known as The White Plague.
This name was given to pretty much any sickness of the time that involved coughing but usually without leading to death. It occurred most often in children, as it does now, with coughing, hoarseness, mildly sore throats, and possibly mild fevers. The name arose from the local disease in southeastern Scotland, given wide publication by Dr. Francis Home of Edinburgh in his 1765 treatise on it, according to Etymology Online. In modern times, any child with a barking cough is said to have the croup.
This disease was characterized by inflammation of the mucous membrane of the large intestine. Its early name said it all: the bloody flux. Its symptoms were severe diarrhea, bloody and/or mucus-filled stools, fever, and abdominal pain.
This was indigestion caused by just about anything: overeating, late-night eating, eating something that disagreed with you, not chewing food up properly before swallowing, etc. Dictionary.com defined it as ‘deranged digestion,’ which is about the best definition I’ve ever come across for anything.
Those distasteful, foul-smelling, gasses or exhalations that were thought to cause disease. Not only could effluvia come from sewage waste, but females might infect males with their noxious fumes.
Also known as boils, these nasty skin abscesses were filled with pus, and brought great pain and suffering to those afflicted. Until the late 19th century, no one knew the cause of furuncles, but they remembered that they were a sign of the Plague, and feared them, and sufferers, accordingly.
This was a joint disease that most often affected the upper classes. In medieval medicine, the disease was thought to be caused by ‘drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints.’ This turns out to be close to the modern scientific explanation, as gout was often caused by the drinking of heavy or sweet wines, or excessive beer drinking combined with insufficient food. The disease can also be hereditary.
This was uncontrollable tremors combined with partial paralysis, and could be caused by a host of diseases. So palsy was a symptom rather than an illness, but severe enough to deserve a mention. As seen above, survivors of apoplexy could suffer from palsy. As with most illnesses of the era, there was no cure.
The more common name for hemorrhoids, so-called from the ball-like shape.
Pleurisy was an inflammation of the lungs marked by a hacking cough and sharp chest pain. Pleuritis meant ‘pain in the side,’ although in medieval times it meant ‘more,’ as in ‘more humours’ (those medieval doctors loved their bodily humours). Respiratory infections were the main causes of pleurisy.
Inflammation of the lungs, or ‘winter fever,’ was defined by pain in the side, rapid breathing, fluttering pulse, cough, and fever. Its symptoms were described as early as the Middle Ages and are similar to the descriptions of today.
This has to be the saddest of all the illnesses of the era. Also known as Child Bed Fever, it was the main reason women feared pregnancy during the Regency. Symptoms included severe abdominal pain and high fever, and both mother and child could (and likely would) die from it. We now know it as an infection resulting from a prolonged or difficult childbirth where a foreign organism is introduced into the birth canal.
Putried Fever/Sore Throat
This is not your modern-day fever/sore throat. Think gangrene that attacked the tonsils and throat, destroyed the tissue, and gave off some of the noxious effluvium mentioned above. Think high fever and massively aching throat along the lines of the strep throat of today. This could also be called quinsy.
This was a complication from Putrid Fever/Putrid Sore Throat. It was most often seen in children and was nearly always fatal. It was characterized by fever, inflammation, pain in and around the joints, and by inflammatory involvement of the pericardium and heart valves.
Scarlatina, or Scarlet Fever, was the contagious disease characterized by a bright red, distinctive rash that looked like a sunburn with bumps, accompanied by a high fever and sore throat. There were traumatic epidemics in England and Wales in the mid 1800s that killed hundreds of people.
This virus was acute, causing blisters on the skin, mouth, and throat, accompanied by fever. Blisters that occurred near the eyes could cause blindness. It was fatal to one-third of those who caught it, but for those who survived, they were immune, though terribly scarred and marked such as survivors. Eighty percent of children that contracted this disease died. Smallpox was highly contagious, being easily inhaled or transmitted through bodily fluids. One of the first vaccinations ever created was for smallpox in 1798. An interesting side fact: smallpox was so named in contrast to great pox, which was syphilis.
Also known as Trismus and Lockjaw, this infectious disease affected the central nervous system, causing violent spasms and stiffness of the muscles all over the body (but most obviously in locking the jaw). Unbeknownst at the time, tetanus was caused by bacteria living in soil, saliva, dust, and manure – hence its extremely contagious nature – and entered the body through open wounds.
Surgeon and artist Sir Charles Bell documented the effects of tetanus after the Battle of Corunna in the Napoleonic War in 1809, for the purpose of studying gunshot wounds; his most famous of his thirteen paintings shows the horrors and agony of full tetany.
This disease was also called ‘Pestilential’ or ‘Putrid Fever,’ or by names derived from the locality were the outbreak appeared, such as ‘Camp,’ ‘Jail,’ ‘Hospital,’ or ‘Ship Fever.’ Typhus spread by lice, and symptoms included delirium, headaches, fever, and a rash. The duration of the disease was tracked by the rash, which cleared in two weeks, if the patient survived. Typhus spread via overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and people could catch it repeatedly if re-exposed. No cure existed until the discovery of antibiotics.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- All illness terms were verified for historicity at Online Etymological Dictionary. Further explanations were used from this site where noted.
- Read all about Disease and Illness in Regency England at L.A. Hilden’s site.
- Totally clicked for the title alone: Turn Your Head, Cough, and Be Glad You Don’t Live in the Regency Era. And then went back for more because the name of the site is Drunk Austen. Winning!
- Another great title to click on: Ouch! The body’s ills…and the doctors who didn’t cure them at HarvardMagazine.com.
- Who has an exhaustive list on Common Ailments, Complaints, and Diseases in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries that I didn’t discover until after I’d made mine, but I wished I’d discovered before I’d spent the time on mine? Geri Walton, that’s who. I should’ve known, because she’s awesome!
- See all the awful, heartbreaking effects of Tetanus: The Grinning Death at DiscoverMagazine.com.