At the beginning of quarantine, when the magnitude of the moment was blooming so strangely, I felt anesthetized by simultaneity. Too much was happening, and so much of it was frightening. Graves were being dug in trenches in New York City. Bicycle-delivery guys were strapping on masks and oven mitts and setting off down empty streets, their lives in their hands. At lunch, I’d sit down to eat a turkey sandwich and stare, befuddled, at its arbitrary triangles, and then at the green branch that was budding outside the window, being buffeted back and forth in the wind. At night, I tried to read “Wolf Hall,” figuring that there was no better time to become absorbed in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, about the life of Thomas Cromwell, the legendary fixer for Henry VIII—the final installment, “The Mirror and the Light,” had just been published. At first I couldn’t focus; my hands kept reaching for my phone, refreshing hospitalization numbers. But, gradually, I got swept up in the book’s convergence of magnitude and immediacy. Mantel writes history like it’s always on the cusp of occurring, which it is—as if the exile of a great cardinal is as inexorable and as surprising as the rain that starts falling on his face as he cries, riding away. It was 1527, spring and summer. And then, around page 90, Mantel introduces a mysterious plague.
“The warm weather has brought sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying,” she writes. The “gossip in the shops is all about pills and infusions, and friars in the streets are doing a lucrative trade in holy medals. This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.”
One day that summer, the sweating sickness kills Cromwell’s wife, Liz: he comes home to find her corpse on the bed, her jaw bound with linen, the whole house smelling like burning herbs. Liz has to be buried quickly, with no funeral permissible; the family is supposed to hang a bundle of straw outside the house as a sign of infection, to restrict entry for forty days, and to keep themselves at home. Cromwell’s mother-in-law suggests, tentatively, that they don’t have to admit that Liz had sweating sickness—they could cite another cause of death, forgo the straw, and go on with their lives. “If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill,” she says. But, in the end, the family follows precautions. Cromwell stays in his room, reading Petrarch and Machiavelli. The plague passes lightly over London, and, in September, the family gathers to mourn Liz.
The next summer, the sweating sickness returns. “People say, as they did last year, that you won’t get it if you don’t think about it,” Cromwell observes. They’re wrong, of course, and he sends his two daughters away from London. Infection reaches Henry VIII’s court, and Henry leaves, trying to “outride the plague, moving from one hunting lodge to the next.” He’s in the midst of trying to replace Catherine of Aragon with Anne Boleyn, the latter of whom goes off to the country, to self-isolate at a family estate. She gets infected, but recovers quickly; Henry, who has a powerful fear of illness, declines to visit, sending his best.
Magical thinking pervades the royal universe, and extends to matters of illness: rubies, people say, will ward off the plague. Henry’s men, eager to understand the fate of their country, pore over the king’s astrological chart; they map a comet’s progress across the sky and consult a nun who claims to communicate with the dead. Cromwell’s rise to power is rooted partly in his understanding that England’s path is, above all, determined by earthly matters, by taxes and leases and questions of fallible bodies—whether there will be enough food for the army, whether the queen will produce a son. The “usual business,” he thinks, in the second book, means “war and peace, famine, traitorous connivance; a failing harvest, a stubborn populace; plague ravaging London, and the king losing his shirt at cards.” Because monumental matters are mundane in Mantel’s trilogy, the mundane feels monumental—an aspect of the book that has harmonized with the heightened sensory awareness that, on some days, seems to mark life in quarantine. Mantel’s narrative present is so sharp-edged that a feeling of unfolding consequence pervades every ordinary morning, “misty and dappled,” when “the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves,” and “there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green.”
Both the sweating sickness and the bubonic plague recur throughout the trilogy, which covers the period between 1500 and 1540, tracking Cromwell’s ascent—he becomes Henry’s right hand—and then his fatal reversal of fortune. Plague serves as a backbeat, a periodic reminder that summer has come again. As Henry travels around the country, his routes are adjusted: riders gallop ahead and return, bringing reports of plague cases in one village or another. (“Henry, brave on the battlefield, pales almost before their eyes and wrenches around the horse’s head: where to? Anywhere will do, anywhere but Farnham.”) In “The Mirror and the Light,” Cromwell’s cook cracks a joke about the disease. He’s standing with Cromwell, who is offering tastes of bread dipped in a new sort of herb oil to passing members of the household. One servant comes in and sneezes, and the cook says, dryly, “That will be the plague.”
Researchers have suggested that the mechanism behind bubonic-plague transmission may have evolved as early as the Bronze Age. In the sixth century A.D., the Plague of Justinian wiped out much of the Byzantine Empire. The second pandemic of the bubonic plague, now known as the Black Death, is the deadliest pandemic in history. It peaked in Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, killing up to half of the continent’s population; the death rate is estimated to have been between sixty and ninety per cent. A third plague pandemic began in the nineteenth century, originating in China and hitting the United States by 1900. It was early in this third pandemic that the cause of bubonic plague was finally identified, in Hong Kong, by the bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. (The culprit, the bacterium now known as Yersinia pestis, was renamed, for him, in 1944.) Bubonic plague was spread by fleas, who became infected with Yersinia pestis when they bit infected animals, such as rodents. Though Black Death-era public-health measures—isolation of the infected, precautionary quarantine for travellers—created a template for the plague that still, in part, persists, it was the identification of Yersinia pestis that paved the way for effective prevention and treatment. Today, the bubonic plague no longer poses an existential threat, although cases still crop up, including a few in the U.S. every year.
But there is no hard answer for what sweating sickness was. It was known in Cromwell’s time as sudor anglicus, meaning the “English sweat,” and there were five outbreaks of it in England, the first in 1485 and the last in 1551. Victims did, in fact, often die within hours of their first symptoms, developing a high fever and “copious malodorous sweating,” Paul R. Hunter writes in Reviews of Infectious Diseases; the exact cause of death may have been dehydration, but this remains unknown. Because the disease killed so swiftly, and because it had other peculiar features—it seemed mainly to affect English people, even when it travelled across borders, and it was particularly infectious among wealthy young men—superstitions abounded. The sweating sickness seemed like a “mysterious minister of fate, like an evil spirit, with malice and sagacity,” according to “Encyclopædia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World,” which was published in 1903. People have suggested that the sweating sickness was a form of scarlet fever, or anthrax, or typhus, or flu. Maybe it was an enterovirus, the genus of viruses that includes poliovirus. In 1993, there was an outbreak of a similar illness in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, which researchers eventually identified as a new sort of hantavirus, a type of disease that is transmitted by rodents. If the sweating sickness was a form of hantavirus, this could explain why wealthy people were more likely to fall victim to it: their households were larger, with rat-friendly kitchens, and their housekeepers may have aerosolized the virus when brushing rat droppings off the floor. But this is speculation.