Medieval Diseases - Sarah Woodbury

Medieval Diseases

In the Middle Ages, the range of types of diseases was similar to what we experience today, with some exceptions (HIV/AIDS).   Viruses, of course, are no easier to combat now than then, but without vaccines and if the infected person was living in unclean or freezing conditions, or suffering from a poor diet, the disease was made that much worse.  Antibiotics help with some diseases, but then again, more have sprung up in response to them (C-diff).

That said, these are some of the most common diseases people experienced in Europe in the Middle Ages (not including the Black Plague, see:; or leprosy, see:

Dysentary:  Still common in poorer countries today, Dysentary is an infection caused either by bacteria or amoebas, spread through contamination of food and water by infected fecal matter.  Typhoid is another such disease spread through bacteria and fecal matter which was not uncommon in the Middle Ages

“Symptoms: (Bacillary) After 1-6 days incubation, watery stools, fever, cramps, dehydration. In advanced stages, bloody stools, meningitis, conjunctivitis, and arthritis. (Amebic) Acute form: watery, bloody stools, cramps, fever, weakness. Chronic form: intermittent diarrhea, mild abdominal discomfort.  Result: Generally weakened condition.  Note: Endemic in medieval armies and pretty common in cities. Infantile diarrhea was a leading cause of death for infants. After the Black Death, many urban areas instituted public health reforms to improve sanitation and prevent these enteric fevers.”


Ergotism (“St. Anthony’s fire,” “holy fire,” “evil fire,” “devil’s fire,” “saints’ fire”):  Poisoning from a fungal infection of grain, especially rye.

Symptoms: (Convulsive) Degeneration of the nervous system causes anxiety, vertigo, aural/visual hallucinations, and the sensation of being bitten or burned; stupor, convulsions, and psychosis. (Gangrenous) Constriction of the blood vessels causes reddening and blistering of skin, then blackening, with itching and burning, and finally necrosis.  Result: 40% mortality. Lingering symptoms, including mental impairment, among survivors.

Note: Ergotism was known as a rural disease, particularly of marshy areas, and one that followed crop damage or famine; especially after a severe winter and a rainy spring. Children are more susceptible because of their smaller body weight. Because England did not rely on rye as much as populations on the continent, it suffered fewer cases of the convulsive type.”


Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Gonorrhea, Syphilis):

“By the Middle Ages both gonorrhoea and syphilis were widespread. One view, by no means unchallenged, was that syphilis was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus’ sailors on their return from the New World. The differentiation of the 2 diseases from each other was often a matter of medical debate, from the sixteenth up until the nineteenth century, many authors believing that the symptoms of gonorrhoea (clap or gleet) were the early stages of syphilis (the pox). This view was substantiated by the British surgeon John Hunter (1728-93), who undertook heroic self-experimentation by injecting his own penis with material taken from a patient with gonorrhoea. On developing the signs of syphilis he concluded the two infections were the same — little realizing that his patient, like many others, actually suffered from both infections at the same time.
The main orthodox treatment for syphilis from the Middle Ages until the early years of the twentieth century consisted of the application of a mercury ointment, a favourite treatment for skin lesions. But sufferers from the disease were particularly susceptible to the blandishments of quacks and charlatans, and many successful businesses profited during the seventeenth through to the twentieth centuries from selling useless remedies.”
This article details the discovery of medical mercury found in medieval bones.  In these cases, it was used primarily to treat syphilis and leprosy.
New research might indicate that syphilis was actually an new world disease brought to the old world by exploration and conquest (love the irony there). “Not a single report of pre-Columbian syphilis in Europe, they concluded in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, included enough information to confirm a diagnosis of the disease. There is evidence, on the other hand, of the syphilis in the New World dating back at least 7,000 years.”
Diptheria:  “Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. There are two types of diphtheria: respiratory and cutaneous. Respiratory diphtheria involves the nose, throat and tonsils, and cutaneous diphtheria involves the skin . . . Death occurs in approximately five to ten percent of all respiratory cases with higher death rates (of up to 20 percent) among persons younger than five and older than 40 years of age.”

“In the early part of the 14th century there were outbreaks of typhoid fever, dysentery and diphtheria. It has been estimated that in 1316 about 10% of the population died from these three diseases.”