The Mysterious Disease That Ravaged 16th Century England

The University of Cambridge's Gonville and Caius College has a rather grim connection to a mysterious 16th-century epidemic. Initially established as Gonville Hall in 1348, per the university, it became financially moribund before being funded and refounded in 1557 by alumnus Dr. John Kay, who spelled his surname in various ways, including "Keys" and "Caius," in accordance with Elizabethan tradition. History explains that Kays made a killing while treating people for the so-called "sweating sickness" that ravaged England. He even wrote a book of medical observations and alleged cures for the sweating sickness. Unfortunately, patients were paying for horribly ineffective remedies, and dying in droves. No doctor could even explain the illness, let alone cure it.

Symptoms kicked off with abrupt feelings of dread followed by headaches, neck pain, and a profuse cold sweat. The Encyclopedia Britannica says people experienced delirium and giddiness. Fever, dehydration, and heart palpitations set in. In thirty to fifty percent of cases, people died within three to eighteen hours. If a person went an entire day with their bucket un-kicked, that usually meant they fully recovered ... but survival didn't prevent reinfection.

The limited scientific knowledge of the era made deadly outbreaks all the more terrifying, but the disease tended to inundate very rich or indigent populations after floods or prolonged raining. To this day, no one truly knows what caused the sweating sickness, or where it came from.

Was England haunted by a hantavirus?

Starting in 1485, five epidemics drenched Germany, England, and other European regions in the dreaded cold sweat, via History. How it reached England remains a mystery, but some historians attribute it to mercenaries hired by Henry VIII's daddy during the War of the Roses in 1487. That decision secured the throne for Henry but instead of smelling like a rose, his reign reeked of sweat and death. Henry's adviser Thomas More claimed, "One is safer on the battlefield than in the city." Fear infected daily life. Throughout his reign, Henry fled the sickness, and went so far as to move entire residences and disband his court, per the BBC. The journal Viruses observes that Shakespeare referenced the deadly sweat in Measure for Measure

England's sweating sickness evaporated in 1551. But in 1718, a similar ailment called the Picardy Sweat broke out in France. Limited outbreaks persisted until 1861. Researchers from the Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels, Belgium posited in a 2014 paper that hantaviruses were at the heart of France and England's epidemics. Bats, rodents, and other insectivores carry hantaviruses, and the researchers argue that rats feeding on the food stored at monasteries might have caused England's sweating sickness. If so, the road to hell was paved with the stairway to heaven.