Bring Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall and a scientific mystery

Cover of Bring Up the BodiesI have just finished reading the fantastic Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel‘s telling of the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and the coming of the English reformation: a marvellous book that does what the best historical fiction must – makes us understand that the people of the past were just the same as ourselves.

Handily this leaves me with just a few days before the publication of the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, the story of Cromwell’s role in the downfall and destruction of Anne Boleyn which the early enthusiastic reviews on Amazon suggest is an even better novel.

But Wolf Hall does also point towards a scientific mystery – the rise and disappearance of the “English sweating sickness“.

This fever killed many thousands of people (including most of Cromwell’s family) in the late 15th and then 16th centuries, mainly (as the name suggests) in England (though Ireland was also badly affected and there were several outbreaks in continental Europe also) before seemingly disappearing without a trace.

Several different causes have been postulated – including spread by lice and ticks – but nothing is conclusive.

The problem with reading about these sort of things is that it is very easy to quickly become quite scared by them: human understanding of viruses is still quite rudimentary in many ways and the risk that our era could be struck down by a mystery disease is a real one. The rapid decline in the effectiveness of anti-bacterial vaccination adds to sense of fear.

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