What does ‘strange sickness’ mean?

By William Hepburn

There are eight days remaining in the Strange Sickness Kickstarter campaign . But what does ‘strange sickness’ mean, and why have we chosen it as the title for the game? In this blog post I’ll dive into some of the sources from Aberdeen in which the evocative term is used.

In her recent book, Karen Jillings noted the association of the term with syphilis in the early sixteenth century, called at the time the Great Pox.[1] For instance, an entry from the Aberdeen council registers in 1507 refers to ‘the strange sickness of Naples’. The disease of Naples was another widely-used term for syphilis.[2]

Earlier entries suggest the term ‘strange sickness’ had broader applicability. Certainly, one use of the term from 1497 seems to refer to a venereal disease, coming as it does on the same day as an entry outlining cruel punishments imposed on ‘licht’ (‘immoral’) women, probably referring to sex workers, stipulating that unless they refrained from ‘vicis and Syne of venere’ (‘vices and the sin of sexual indulgence’) they would be burned on the cheek with a hot iron key and banished from the town (click on links in footnotes to see orginal records and transcriptions).[3]

However, an entry from 1498 suggests the term was used more generally, at least at this stage. It records an ordinance of the town for the inhabitants to close the gates at the back of their properties and build up their back walls in order to keep the town safe from ‘the pestilence and ale vthir Strang Seknes’ (‘the pestilence and all other strange sickness’).[4] This refers to the layout of the town, with the backs of individual properties effectively making up the physical boundary of the town, as can still be seen in Gordon of Rothiemay’s map from 1661.[5]

The phrasing here suggests pestilence (i.e. plague) was regarded as ‘strange sickness’ along with other types of disease. That plague was included as a type of strange sickness is further suggested by two entries from 1500.  A statute issued on 15 August 1500 stated that people coming off a ship recently arrived from Danzig (today Gdansk) should be quarantined ‘for the sawite and weilfar of the town’ fra ale sthrange seknes’ (‘for the safety and welfare of the town from all strange sickness’).[6] Another statute, from six days later (21 August 1500), imposed further measures related to the ship from Danzig ‘for the escheving of the plage of pestilence and safte of this tone’ (‘for the eschewing of the plague of pestilence and safety of this town’).[7] Two entries from 1506 clearly include plague under the umbrella of ‘strange sickness’.[8]

If ‘strange sickness’ was a general term, encompassing plague, syphilis and possibly other diseases, what does it tell us about their shared characteristics? ‘Sickness’ is clear enough, but strange is a little more ambiguous. In Older Scots ‘strange’ as an adjective could mean, much as does in modern English, unusual or unfamiliar. It could also mean exceptional and, more specifically, alien or foreign.[9]

Certainly, in the late 1490s, syphilis was an unfamiliar disease, and Karen Jillings has argued that Aberdeen was ‘the first government body in the British Isles to tackle the Great Pox.’[10] Aberdonians may have been well aware of plague at this time, at least in theory, but it too is likely to have been unfamiliar in terms of personal experience for most, with no evidence that the disease had struck in the town for many generations.[11] Both diseases could also have been regarded as ‘strange’ in the sense of foreign or alien, with the Aberdeen records referring to France as the source of syphilis and the fears of plague sparked by the arrival of a ship from Danzig. They both too could have been regarded as exceptional in their severity.

The usage ‘strange sickness’ in late-medieval Aberdeen may capture all of these meanings, and it speaks to the role of uncertainty in the human experience of disease and infection. Even after months of blanket media coverage, growing scientific evidence and widespread testing, our experience of Covid-19 often remains shrouded in uncertainty, even setting aside the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Symptoms overlap with other conditions, making it hard without a test to know if you have it (and even tests can be inaccurate). When a case is confirmed, working out exactly how it was transmitted comes with even greater uncertainty. All of this has contributed to a strangely intangible sense of threat throughout much of 2020, although for many of those who have caught the virus, and their family, friends and carers, the threat has sadly become all too tangible.

When rumours swirled of the plague and the Great Pox in late-medieval Scotland – diseases which were far more deadly than even Covid-19 – fear and uncertainty must have been widespread. The term ‘strange sickness’ resonates with this atmosphere, which we intend to evoke, and allow players to navigate, in the game.

[1] Karen Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague: Socio-Economic, Political and Medical Impacts in a Scottish Community, 1500-1650 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), p. 79.

[2] Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 77.

[3] ARO-7-0797-02, ARO-7-0798-01 (24 April 1497).

[4] ARO-7-0934-04 (18 Feb 1498).

[5] See the map here: https://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/209.

[6] ARO-7-1067-02 (15 August 1500).

[7] ARO-7-1067-03 (21 August 1500).

[8] ARO-8-0576-01 (22 May 1506); ARO-8-0582-02 (8 June 1506).

[9] See ‘strange’ in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language: https://dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/strange_adj.

[10] Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 79.

[11] Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 79.