Sickness and Disease

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Sickness and Disease

During the Renaissance, disease was a common part of life for all social classes. However, illness took a much harsher toll on the poor than it did on the rich. Members of the elite* might live to an advanced age, managing their chronic ailments with the help of physicians. The poor, by contrast, had limited access to medical help. Any disease could pose a threat to their lives by endangering their ability to earn a living.


Types of Sickness. Perhaps the most feared disease during the Renaissance was plague. This highly contagious illness swept across Europe in the mid-1300s, killing as much as a third of the continent's population. After that, it returned at least once in every generation. Other diseases also struck rich and poor alike. These included cancer, fevers, tuberculosis, and painful joint ailments such as rheumatism and gout.

Renaissance physicians had to treat a variety of previously unknown medical problems, such as gunshot wounds and new illneses. Chief among these was the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. Renaissance people called this illness the "great pox" to distinguish it from smallpox, which became a serious epidemic in the late 1500s. Epidemics of typhus, a severe fever spread by body lice, appeared suddenly during the wars of the early 1500s. Long sea voyages and the colonization of tropical regions introduced Renaissance Europeans to scurvy (a disease caused by lack of vitamins) and yellow fever (a tropical illness spread by mosquitoes). Another mosquito-carried illness was malaria, which causes severe chills and fever. A few diseases were work-related, such as those suffered by miners in the Alps and in the silver mines of the Americas.


Disease and Social Class. To some extent, the upper classes could escape disease epidemics by retreating to country estates, away from crowded urban centers of infection. When they did become sick, they could afford to treat themselves with special diets, imported wines, costly medicines, and visits to hot springs or baths thought to have healing powers. The great majority of people, however, lacked the means to pay for such treatments.

Physicians came to associate some diseases, such as plague, with the lower classes. Cities introduced public-health rules to keep the poor masses away from members of the elite during epidemics. However, physicians believed that the upper classes were particularly subject to a few illnesses. In the mid-1500s the Italian scientist Girolamo Fracastoro wrote about a disease he called lenticular fever that tended to attack "those who are rather delicate and less robust." This ailment, Fracastoro noted, had less effect on the hearty peasant classes "because they exert themselves strenuously [vigorously] and their diet is more frugal [thrifty]." An English disease called "sweating sickness" also tended to strike the wealthy.

The experience of sickness undoubtedly varied according to social and economic class, but some problems cut across class lines. One example was infant death. A quarter of all babies, whether born into wealth or poverty, died before their second birthdays. Infectious diseases may have been more common among the poor, but they could still torment the rich and famous. Many members of Italy's powerful Medici family, for example, struggled with tuberculosis, and England's King Henry VIII suffered from ulcers—painful and ugly sores—on his legs that refused to heal. People who underwent surgery, whether for toothache, bone fractures, or even complications of childbirth, might experience persistent sores as a result.

Illness posed a great threat to rural and urban day laborers, who depended upon wages from daily work. Sickness, like any other disaster, could plunge a family into deeper poverty. Hospitals and traditional charities rarely helped families cope with this challenge. As a result, the gap between rich and poor grew wider during the late Renaissance. The effects of disease were only one of the many ways in which the contrast between social classes became more visible at this time.

(See alsoDeath; Medicine. )

* elite

privileged group; upper class