Sweating Bullets: A Story of Ann Boleyn 3/4

I am so honored to have JoAnn Spears back at Redwood’s Medical Edge. Her posts about the ailments of long lost monarchs are hugely popular and entertaining as well.

This four part Monday series focuses on Ann Boleyn and the mysterious sweating sickness that had a 70% mortality rate! Here are Part I and Part II.

Welcome back, JoAnn!

Part III:  The cold hard facts.

In the Latin that united the cosmopolitan Renaissance medical world, the Sweating Sickness was called ‘sudor anglicus’, or The English Sweat.  Some Brits thought it an imported commodity, courtesy of the mercenaries from continental Europe who helped Henry VII, the first Tudor king, to win his throne.  In the sickness’ last rampage, it spread eastward through northern Europe as far as Russia, but largely spared Scotland, Ireland, and the more southern portions of Europe.

Much of Europe thought England in Tudor times a bit behind when it came to cleanliness and hygiene practices.  Erasmus described floors “covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapour is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health.” The grasses and straw which comprised rushes, and which were also used to fill mattresses and cushions, were often infested with critters such as lice and bedbugs.  This perception played a large part in two of modern sciences’ earliest hypotheses about causes of The Sweat:  potties and pests.

Early epidemiologists associated The Sweat with Typhoid Fever.  Salmonella typhi spreads through contaminated food or water by what is known as the fecal-oral route and is strongly associated with poor sanitation and waste disposal.  This ailment probably killed such prominent Brits as Prince Albert, as well as several of the literary Brontes.  Typhoid fever has, however, a marked gastroenterological component.  Such symptoms are largely absent, or not emphasized, in contemporary descriptions of The Sweat.

Relapsing Fever, caused by louse-borne Borrelia recurrentis, is another Sweat contender.  It originated in the warmer parts of the world, including parts of Africa and South and Central America.  In the early Renaissance era, European exploration of these areas was just beginning. The plants, animals, and people that Europe’s explorers brought back home to the Old World could have been inadvertent Borrelia vectors.  Most of these early explorations, however, originated out of, and returned to, Southern European countries which were largely, unlike England, Sweat-spared.
Relapsing and Typhoid Fevers are caused by bacteria.

Bacteria were understood long before the discovery of viruses, which occurred around the turn of the 20thcentury.  Still more advanced 21stcentury knowledge about microbes provides a most convincing possibility for categorizing The Sweat:  influenza.

We’ll discuss the possibility of Sweating Sickness being viral in nature next post.
JoAnn Spears is a registered nurse with Master’s Degrees in Nursing and Public Administration. Her first novel, Six of One, JoAnn brings a nurse’s gallows sense of humor to an unlikely place: the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. Six of One was begun in JoAnn’s native New Jersey. It was wrapped up in the Smoky Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, where she is pursuing a second career as a writer. She has, however, obtained a Tennessee nursing license because a) you never stop being a nurse and b) her son Bill says “don’t quit your day job”.

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