Amongst all the epidemics which stroke the humankind throughout history, the most terrifying one is almost certainly the one known as Black Death; in the 14th century killed around 20 millions of people in Europe, followed by the Spanish Flu in 1918 which killed 50 to 100 millions of people.
Dance of Death -Hartmann Schedel- 1493
Curiously, between the many epidemics which affected Europe during the Middle Ages, there is one not very much known as well as still rather mysterious. Probably because it affected especially the UK and other countries of the continental Northern Europe such as Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, Russia, and also because it didn’t cause as many dead as the other plagues did.
Unlike the other lethal viruses from the past like plagues, cholera, typhus of which nowadays we know the causes, the sweating illness (sudor anglicus in Latin) remains to this day an utter riddle. What we know is that people were dying, from the beginning of the symptoms within 24 hours, drenched in their own sweat.
German publication on the Sweating Illness – 1529
The disease would show up with flu, violent ache to the shoulders, neck and limbs, head, as well as exhaustion and shivers. After a short time, half an hour to 3 hours afterwards, a second phase was starting in which the patient would feel an unbearable sense of heat, delirium, heartbeat racing, never ending thirst and sweat; at that point a respiratory distress would happen, an intense need of sleeping and , probably, a heart failure.
The development of the disease was described in 1551 by doctor John Caius, one of the very few sources of this mysterious illness. The doctor found himself into the midst of the last known cluster in Britain then, as quick as it came, it disappeared. Something similar was registered in a delimited area of France at the beginning of 1700.
The first epidemic appeared in summer 1485 at the beginning of Henry VII who gained the right to the throne after Richard III thanks to the battle of Bosworth Field. This coincidence spread the rumor that the plague had been brought in by the French mercenaries of Henry, but there is no evidence proving this eventuality. What is certain is that Henry landed in London on the 28th of August and the outbreak blew on the 19th of February.
By the end of October it had killed already thousands of people
The aspect that was scaring people the most was the rapid development of the disease, with the death occurring unexpectedly: someone walking on the street or quietly conversing, all of a sudden, were keeling over and then die.
Below: paintings of Henry (1535-1551) and Charles Brandon (1537-1551), respectively 2nd and 3rd duke of Suffolk who died in the outbreak of the 1551 within a few hours. Painted by Hans Holbein the younger, another possible victim of the sweating illness, 1543
Those people who were overcoming the first 24 hours had good chances to get by, however other attacks might follow, still with a deadly outcome.
By the end of October, the mysterious disease vanished (apart from a few small sites), only to come back stronger in 1507 and then in 1517. Only in 1528 the illness turned into a real epidemic and started reaping lives in Germany, Switzerland, Danmark, Sweden and Norway.
Below: The renown artist Hans Holbein the younger was maybe one of the many victims of the outbreak, 1543
The last important infective episode took place in 1551 and then it stopped.
The disease disappeared without revealing its mysteries
The sweating illness seemed to prefer the wealthy class of England, without sparing the high nobility. The name of the disease was “English sweating illness” because it did not spread in all the other English regions; for some reason Scotland, Wales and Ireland did not seem to be affected by the virus that, according to dr John Caius “was shadowing the Brits”. But not only that
It was mainly affecting young people but seemed to spare children and elderly people
Amongst the important survivors there was the cardinal Wolsey, who seemed to have recovered twice (1517 e 1528), and perhaps even Anne Boleyn. The victims were the heir to the throne Henry VII, Arthur Tudor and in the last epidemic the two brothers Henry and Charles Brandon, dukes of Suffolk, where one died one hour away from the other.
Below: painting of Anne Boleyn
Throughout the centuries as well as in recent times, many researchers tried to look for a cause of death for that peculiar illness. The explanations were different from each other: recurrent flu (transmitted by fleas and ticks) or the terrible anthrax infection which amongst its symptoms counted the unexpected onset, the physical exhaustion and the abundant sweating.
Below: Arthur Tudor (1486-1502)
However the most recent theory insists on how similar the English sweating illness sounds compared to the Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, even though there is still some perplexity on the matter. Doctor Paul Heyman, that in 2014 conducted a study on the sweating illness, made a gloomy admission:
“it it hard foreseeing whether the outbreak will hit the population again. We regularly see the (re) emerging of “new” viruses, and the chance for it to come back amongst us is still valid.