Contagions

England once looked very different. Much of southern Britain was marshland for most of the island’s occupied history. These bogs, fens, and marshes ensured that areas of virtual wilderness persisted  from before Roman Britain through the Norman period and beyond. Despite the difficulties of using fenlands, these areas were not only occupied throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, but important centers like Croyland, Bardney, and Ely eventually developed in the marsh.

The largest fenland region was known as ‘the Wash’.  This low-lying region drained four rivers into  a square bay of the North Sea that forms the corner between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In Anglo-Saxon times, this tidal marsh and bog was a vast border region between the region of Lindsey and East Anglia.  Places like Croyland and Ely were islands in the wetlands.  The eighth century Life of Guthlac describes the environment of Croyland when Guthlac arrived:

There is…

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2 comments on “

  1. kljolly says:

    I enjoyed this post, which coincided with my reading of Christina Lee’s essay on disease and impairment in the Material Culture of Daily Living book. I had never thought about malaria in England, always associating it with tropical climes, forgetting about all those marshes.
    One query I have for you in relation to disease transmission is “leprosy.” We are quite sensitive about that word here in Hawai`i and the offensive noun leper (see Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai and the work of Saint/Father Damien and Sister Marianne Cope, currently undergoing beatification). The preference is to refer to Hansen’s Disease for the specific illness and to be quite guarded about identifying historical references to leprosy as Hansen’s as compared to a wide range of other skin diseases, communicable or not.
    Nonetheless, I continue to see references to “leprosy” in medieval studies as if it is unproblematic. Certainly the Biblical injunctions and stories plays a role in the construction of leprosy in the Anglo-Saxon mind. But I think it would be best to simply use “skin disease” instead of leprosy, and Hansen’s when a reference can be clearly identified as such.
    Your thoughts?

    • As far as I know, in early medieval sources leprosy is a general term for skin diseases. Unless there are clear symptoms of Hansen’s like loss of feeling or pain sensations I would go with a non-Hansen’s disease skin disorder. In the Irish annals leprosy is given as one of the symptoms of bubonic plague, and elsewhere as a word for smallpox; ‘leprosy, that is (Irish for smallpox)’.

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