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Discourses on the “English Sweat” in the Early English Books Online Corpus

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal article

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>23/02/2023
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The first reports of the acute and often fatal illness known as the “English Sweat” are from 1485 and its last known outbreak was in 1551. During this period, the Sweat produced only five epidemic waves. Except for one outbreak which spread to the northern part of the continent of Europe in 1529, the Sweat was confined almost exclusively to England, with only anecdotal reports of isolated infections in other parts of the British Isles. The Sweat was thus only a minor component in the panorama of infectious disease affecting mediaeval and early modern Europe. Nevertheless, it continues to fascinate both medical historians and modern infectious disease biologists – the latter group now often engaged in competing exercises in retrospective diagnosis. This paper seeks to explore the reasons for such enduring interest, using the Early English Books Online (EEBO) text corpus to analyse the various contexts in which the Sweat was discussed up to 1700. EEBO shows that references to the Sweat occur repeatedly in astrological and religious discourses, especially from the mid-17th century onwards. Four salient examples are examined in detail. It is proposed that the cultural memory of the Sweat, in the 150 years following its disappearance, was kept disproportionately alive not so much by accounts of its alarming symptoms but more due to its metaphorical and illustrative utility in non-medical discourse.