Life in Sixteenth-Century England:
As Described by Erasmus
Chapter 22


I am frequently astonished and grieved to think how it is that England has been now for so many years troubled by a continual pestilence, especially by a deadly sweat, which appears in a great measure to be peculiar to your country. I have read how a city was once delivered from a plague by a change in the houses, made at the suggestion of a philosopher. I am inclined to think that this, also, must be the deliverance for England.

First of all, Englishmen never consider the aspect of their doors or windows; next, their chambers are built in such a way as to admit of no ventilation. Then a great part of the walls of the house is occupied with glass casements, which admit light but exclude the air, and yet they let in the draught through holes and corners, which is often pestilential and stagnates there. The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harboring expectorations, vomitings, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapor is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health. I may add that England is not only everywhere surrounded by sea, but is, in many places, swampy and marshy, intersected by salt rivers, to say nothing of salt provisions, in which the common people take so much delight I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned, and if the rooms were built in such a way as to be exposed to the sky on two or three sides, and all the windows so built as to be opened or closed at once, and so completely closed as not to admit the foul air through chinks; for as it is beneficial to health to admit the air, so it is equally beneficial at times to exclude it. The common people laugh at you if you complain of a cloudy or foggy day. Thirty years ago, if ever I entered a room which had not been occupied for some months, I was sure to take a fever. More moderation in diet, and especially in the use of salt meats, might be of service: more particularly were public officers appointed to see the streets cleaned from mud and filth, and the suburbs kept in better order. . . .

From E.P. Cheyney, Readings in English History, New York: Ginn and Company, 1908, pp. 316-317. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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