In my book Tyburn, the heroine, Sally, is convinced that Death is following her, and the more you read about life in Restoration London, the more you realize that she is probably right.
Seventeenth-century London was an incredibly dangerous place, and causes of death were mostly mysterious. In his Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, John Graunt offers some of the following explanations: traffic, sciatica, swine-pox, wen, lethargy, fear, sadness, itch, and rather worryingly, “mother.”
If the people living in Restoration London were lucky enough to survive childhood, they could be killed by several afflictions that no longer trouble us today. Apart from the most serious culprits like Tuberculosis and plague, people could die from as little as falling down in the uneven, filthy streets. Do you think you could survive Restoration London? Here’s what you’re up against:
Plague: Which one? Both the pneumonic and the bubonic plagues claimed lives throughout the period. Infection would begin with a flea bite, and from there either spread to the lungs (pneumonic) or the lymph nodes (bubonic). The pneumonic plague resulted in death within three days. The bubonic plague could had a survival rate of about 30%, but still managed to kill an estimated 100,000 people in London alone between 1665-66.
Falling into a Plague Pit: In Journal of a Plague Year, Defoe describes an occurrence of a cart, driver, and horses crash into a plague pit where it was completely swallowed by the corpses and never recovered. There were so many of these pits and they were so large that this happened frequently. There’s a massive plague pit underneath Hyde Park that has affected the path of the Underground, and other pits are still being discovered.
Syphilis (The Great Pox, the French Pox): Syphilis was probably brought to Europe by Columbus and had reached Naples by 1494 (thanks, jerk). It was seen as primarily a male problem, and was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores. Syphilis was treated at this stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pill to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was someone successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If you were lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, you could look forward to madness and paralysis.
Jail Fever (Epidemic Typhus): Spread through body lice, common in dirty, overcrowded conditions, it broke out mainly in jails like Newgate. It causes fever, headache, weakness, and rash, and can lead to swelling of the heart or encephalitis.
The King’s Evil (Scrofula): Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was believed to be curable by the touch of royalty as far back as Edward the Confessor. The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Charles II touched more than 90,000 people afflicted between 1660 and 1682.
Good thing Sally fancies a physician, huh?
Originally posted on Kimber Vale’s blog here. Stop by and say hi!
Yes, nasty stuff. And that’s not including cholera, and the illnesses we laughingly dismiss as ‘childhood’. Or starvation. Or other people.
One point. I’ve been researching syphillis for a character of my own, and it is not contagious by normal means during the dormant period, though it is still busily at work destroying the person who carries it. (I wouldn’t recommend having a baby or offering your blood for a transfusion during the dormant period, though.)
Very good point — and good advice! Thanks, Jude! I have a great book on syphilis that I’ve found very helpful – it’s called Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis by Deborah Hayden. It’s a fascinating subject. We should compare notes! 🙂