What was the mysterious plague that almost killed Anne Boleyn?

Illustration for article titled What was the mysterious plague that almost killed Anne Boleyn?

A mysterious plague swept through Europe in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Its victims foresaw their own doom, getting a terrible sense of foreboding and dread before they even felt ill. It almost changed the course of history — and we still don't know what it was.


Here's a fun idea for any alternate history buffs — what would Europe be like if Anne Boleyn had succumbed to the most dreaded plague of her time? Henry VIII was still courting her when one of her ladies came down with the mysterious "Sweating Sickness." This disease had been around for about fifty years, and people were terrified of it. Henry left, Anne went into quarantine, and before long, she came down with it as well.

This was no minor ailment. Some towns recorded that half their people died of "The Sweat." The afflicted were not expected to survive. It wasn't just the deadliness of the illness or the victims' 24-hour expiration date that gave people a sick fascination with it. It was the fact that — before the disease came on — its victims felt an unreasoning sense of dread and terror. The disease, whatever it was, attacked people's emotions first, and so they foresaw their own probable death.

Despite extensive study, we still don't know what this disease was. It had a few notable quirks. It broke out again and again for almost a century, but only once did an outbreak strike outside England. No one's ever figured out what caused it or how it was communicated. In households, family members were seemingly afflicted at random. It also tended to strike the young, the healthy, and rich more than anyone else. And after the end of the 1500s, The Sweat seemed to disappear.

No explanation for The Sweat has ever been found. Some physicians think that — since it struck the young and healthy in the warm seasons when they're most likely to be active and outside — it was a tick-borne illness. Others say it was a severe form of the hantavirus, which is spread in the droppings of rats. Neither case explains all the symptoms. The only thing we know is, if the disease had gone just a little differently, there would have been no Queen Anne Boleyn, no break with the Catholic church, and no Queen Elizabeth. What on Earth would we do for salacious historical dramas? One breaks out in sweat just thinking about it.

Via The Anne Boleyn Files and Britannica.



I believe if you were seeing half your town die and you even slightly expected that you had the disease you would be overcome with dread.

Then again, sweating was certainly a symptom of the condition which lends itself to believe that somehow the sympathetic (which is tied to anxiety) was being impacted. Perhaps the disease started in the brain, worked its way through the spine until making its way to the lungs.