15 Other Diseases that Could Have Killed You During London's Great Plague
In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague wasn’t the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12 to 19, 1665.
But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.
Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.
Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.
People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.
Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths called chrisomes.
5. Rising of the Lights
Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.
The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.
The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.
8. Meagrome or Megrim
We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.
Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.
10. Head Mould Shot
In newborns, the bony plates of the skull aren’t fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.
Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.
Surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.
13. French Pox
When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and Spanish mercenaries, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the North or South America.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.
14. Bloody Flux
Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.
Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.