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.

New book out today! Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe

Today is the publication date of Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe: Scotland and its Neighbours c.1350–c.1650, a new collection of essays arising from the LACR project symposia. This volume, published by Routledge in the series Themes in Medieval and Early Modern History, is edited by Jackson Armstrong and Edda Frankot.

It includes an introduction and fourteen chapters written by sixteen contributors. Drawing together an international team of historians, lawyers and historical sociolinguists, this volume investigates urban cultures of law in Scotland, with a special focus on Aberdeen and its rich civic archive, the Low Countries, Norway, Germany and Poland from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century.

It’s now available for purchase in all good bookshops as a paperback, hardback and ebook, and directly from the publisher website at www.routledge.com . Congratulations to all those who were involved in bringing this publication forward, from the symposia to today!

A blog post on this and another publication may be found at The Edinburgh Legal History Blog.

Volunteers build list of provosts, bailies and sergeands in the ARO

Aberdeen History grads Callum Judge (2020) and Sophia Nicol (2020) have created a working list of civic leaders in the burgh recorded in the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511.

Sophia and Callum built the list over the summer months of 2020, supervised by Jackson Armstrong. The list was made primarily by identifying elections of provosts, bailies and sergeands which occurred annually at the Michaelmas Head Court, or ‘curia capitalis’, held around 29 September, usually in early October.

Some 756 names of officers who served in the civic administration have been included – many individual people holding office on more than one occasion.

‘electus fuit in officium aldermanni’

The provost, or alderman, was the lead representative of the burgh. The provost was the administrative predecessor of today’s Lord Provost. The bailies had a range of duties, principally relating to justice and land. They presided over their own court, and oversaw the administration of land transactions. The sergeands (sometimes called bedels) were responsible for carrying out the execution of justice in the burgh courts, for instance in issuing summonses and collecting certain penalties. The electorate who chose these officials consisted of the burgesses of the town.

An exhaustive, final tally of all mentions of these officers in the ARO was not the intention in compiling this list. It is a working list – a first version which can be augmented and updated over time. There is not always an election recorded for each year in the ARO, and of course records for 1414-1433 have been missing for more than two centuries. Future work could include capturing additional references to these categories of officers in the corpus, and creating new lists of numerous other figures, such as deans of guild, council members, liners, ale tasters, meat apprisers, and more.

The list may be found here: Working list of provosts, bailies and sergeands in the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511. It is freely available to all as the first of a set of auxiliary resources to accompany the ARO.

Meet the FLAG Project Team

The FLAG Project Team has been assembled and a new site launched for the project!

Dr Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) and Professor Dr Jörg Rogge (Mainz), joint principal investigators will be joined by Research Fellows:

Dr Wim Peters (Aberdeen/Mainz). Wim is a computational linguist with a background in Classical Languages and multilingual knowledge extraction and modelling. He has a PhD from the University of Sheffield at the Department of Computer Science in the areas of computational linguistics and AI. His main interest is the methodological application of natural language processing techniques in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and the conceptual modelling of the knowledge extracted by means of the synergy between scholarly expertise and language technology. Wim’s conviction is that computational involvement in Digital Humanities is in strictly ancillary to the informational needs of domain experts. Only then Digital Humanities and Social Science researchers – a considerable part of whom still remain to be fully convinced of the advantages of the digital revolution for their research – will embrace language technology across the board, from manual inspection and annotation to fully automated analysis.

Dr William Hepburn (Aberdeen). William completed his PhD thesis on ‘The Household of James IV 1488-1513’ at the University of Glasgow. He recently worked as a Research Assistant on the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project (Leverhulme Trust, 2016-2019), which focused on Aberdeen’s fifteenth-century burgh registers.

Dr Regina Schäfer (Mainz). Regina is a Research Associate at the Department of Late Medieval History and Comparative Regional Studies at the JGU Mainz. Her research interests include nobility, social mobility and family in the late middle ages. She is especially interested in legal questions and participated in the edition of the court records of Ingelheim (“Die Ingelheimer Haderbücher”). In the FLAG project she will focus on the analysis of Augsburg.

The project will run from 2020-2023.

Augsburg and Aberdeen in comparison: new UK-German research funding to investigate medieval urban government

800px-Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Augusta_vendilicorum

View of Augsburg, from the Nuremburg Chronicle (Die Schedelsche Weltchronik) (1493).

This new joint project, entitled ‘Finance, law and the language of governmental practice in late medieval towns: Aberdeen and Augsburg in comparison(FLAG), will examine how urban government was organised, executed and recorded in the late middle ages.

The study will place the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 into comparison with Augsburg’s Master Builder’s Ledgers from 1320-1466 (Die Augsburger Baumeisterbücher) .

The project, which starts this month and runs for three years, has been awarded more than £500,000 together from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). It will see the University of Aberdeen and Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU) Mainz work together to establish a broader European context for both digital resources.

The Augsburg Master Builder’s Ledgers cover 1320-1466 and are municipal financial records of period, whereas the Aberdeen Registers Online are primarily legal records. Thus the project will examine how both towns addressed matters of finance and law as they put government into practice. Particular attention is to be given to the variety of terminology used to record the exercise of government, and to identify similarity and difference between these towns which both used a mixture of Latin and vernacular languages in their administrative documentation.

Although Aberdeen and Augsburg were cities of quite different size and political context, those same differences are an advantage to the project, potentially bringing into relief what common features might be considered ‘urban’.

Like the Aberdeen Registers Online, Augsburg’s Ledgers have been transcribed and digitised in a previous project (which was led from Mainz), and they are now published online. Both digital editions are presented in the form of machine-readable XML data sets. This facilitates their comparison, and researchers in Mainz and Aberdeen will be exploring the opportunities and challenges in addressing these resources together, and investigating new techniques for automatic analysis to support historical investigation.

Follow the links here for the JGU Mainz announcement, the AHRC announcement, and today’s press release from the University of Aberdeen.