15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague
The Bills of Mortality (also called "London's Dreadful Visitation") recorded deaths in London. For the week of December 20–27, 1664, there were 291 deaths of various causes—including a very ominous one:
Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 1.
Throughout 1665, the Bills documented the horrific exponential growth of what would come to be called the Great Plague. By September 12–19, 1665, thousands were dying weekly:
Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 7165.
In light of the monstrosity of the 1665 Plague (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis), which killed about 100,000 people—nearly a quarter of London's population—it's almost unseemly to notice that people were dying of other things. There's a terrible irony in having the immune system (or luck) to survive a deadly epidemic only to be killed by drowning or dehydration.
But die of other causes people did, and the ways they met their fate are compiled in the Bills of Mortality. Many are familiar enough (cough, fever, small pox), but many more either don’t exist anymore or are largely unrecognizable by their 17th-century names. Here is a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill even those the Plague couldn’t catch.
Suffering winde seemed to be the polite way of saying your meal was mildly disagreeable to you. But it is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death, which seems unlikely for flatulence. Winde more likely was used here in the same way we say, “he knocked the wind out of me,” meaning the patient died of constricted breathing. More specifically, winde is thought to be chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition usually caused by smoking.
Purples presented exactly as you’d expect: purple blotches on the body. It was caused by the breaking of small blood vessels just under the skin. You didn’t die from the Purples, also called Purpura. You died from whichever of the many conditions were causing your blood vessels to weaken and burst, such as scurvy, or a blood or heart disorder.
Again, a no-nonsense descriptive name for a condition. People who died of livergrown died with an enlarged (failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms like jaundice and liver-located abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by any number of disorders.
Extremely high infant mortality was a miserable fact of life clear up to the 20th century (and still is in some parts of the world). The Bills distinguish abortive (miscarriages), stillborn, infant, and chrisome deaths, but they all amounted to much the same sad thing. Chrisomes were specifically children who died within the first month of life. The word itself refers to the white cloth a baby wore while it was baptized—a symbol of its innocence. A baptized baby was notable because it was assured a place in the heaven of both Catholic and early Protestant doctrine.
5. “Rising of the Lights”
Back in the days when no part of a slaughtered animal was wasted, a pig’s lungs were likely to find their way into stew or sausage, just like any other organ. Compared to other organs, the lungs were very “light.” One horrible cough children suffered sounded like they were bringing up a lung, or “raising their lights.” In Scotland, the awful noise was reminiscent of a chicken sick with a barnyard disease called “roup." In the late 18th century, Scotland’s slang won out, and “rising of the lights” became “croup.”
The condition of having serious swelling or bloating (like a big tight drum) in the digestive tract is still called tympany today, except it is usually used in reference to cows. The sort of swelling that would have proven fatal to human could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or even cancerous tumors.
If you’re a fan of etymology, you'll find a rich history in the word “tissick”, which originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years only to end up a dead word. It derives from a word meaning “to decay.” Much like the also archaic term consumption, tissick described the wretched physical condition of a person who wasted away from tuberculosis.
8. “Meagrome (Megrim)”
If you’re experiencing a migraine, it’s not uncommon for the pain to be located on one side of your head. That’s why the Latin word for it was hemicrania, or “half-head.” The French dropped the “h” sound and softened the “k” into ‘guh’. Any internal head trauma from an aneurysm to a brain tumor would be filed under Megrim, which soon became our familiar enemy, the migraine.
There seem to be clues lurking in the word imposthume, since it bears so many familiar parts. Posthumous? Imposter? Impose? None of them particularly call to mind what an imposthume was: a swelling or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. It originates with the Greek apostema, meaning “standing from,” or apart, such as how a swelling of unnatural fluid would be notably distinct from a healthy body. But that connection might be coincidence; the word went through, as the Oxford English Dictionary put it, “unusual corruption.”
10. “Head mould shot”
Newborns, particularly ones that had a hard struggle down the birth canal, often have oddly shaped heads. This is because the bony plates that make up their skull haven’t fused, or “sutured” together yet. Head mould shot described a condition in which a newborn’s cranial bones were so compressed by delivery (the invention of obstetrical forceps still being 200 years away) that they overlapped (overshot) each other. They then fused in that position, ceasing to grow and causing often fatal brain pressure and convulsions. The condition still exists today, called craniosynostosis, though now it is highly treatable and is rarely caused by difficult births.
Quinsy, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still sometimes used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis where an infection occurs between the tonsil and the throat. A pus-filled abscess grows, requiring antibiotics and sometimes surgery. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient would often suffocate from the blockage.
Surfeit means “to overdo it.” In the case of the Bills of Mortality, it is hard to narrow down what sort of excess the writer is referring to. 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. In veterinary studies it had described a horse which had too much water in its stomach. Though it was likely a rarity, considering the environment in 1664 London, it might have meant a person who died from an excess of food.
13. “French Pox”
Wherever French troops fought a battle, a flare-up of syphilis always seemed to occur among soldiers on both sides. Thus the English (and many others) gave the disease this ignoble title. At the time, rudimentary treatments for syphilis involved injecting mercury into the afflicted area, but they were not reliable. Untreated syphilis could cause blindness, organ and nerve failure, necrosis of tissue, and death.
14. “Bloody Flux”
Dysentery was common in crowded places without reliably clean water sources. To “flux” meant to “flow out”—which is what a person’s body tries to do with any threatening bacteria caught in the digestive tract. Bloody flux described a body so ill that its digestive tract was breaking down. Dehydration was usually the cause of death from dysentery.
“Plannet” is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Today we might describe a person in a state of paralytic awe as “moonstruck,” but the 17th century didn’t limit their diseases to one celestial body. Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity (thus the "luna" in lunatic). A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurisms, strokes, and heart attacks.