Grim Tales of Sickness through the Ages. and a True Welsh Hero

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

Grim Tales of Sickness through the Ages. and a True Welsh Hero


Byline: ALUN WITHEY

[bar] HROUGHOUT history, epidemic diseases have preyed upon our ancestors, weeding out not only the elderly, weak and vulnerable but the healthy and vigorous.

Despite the relative success of modern medicine in treating many conditions which were previously fatal, the threat of epidemics and pandemics - most recently swine flu - continues to haunt us, stirring up popular fear and collective memories of past outbreaks. Even despite the passage of more than three centuries, for example, we can still relate to the fear of the diarist Samuel Pepys as he walked around the streets of plague-ridden London in 1666, noticing the many doors painted with red crosses, and "God Have Mercy" written ominously upon them.

But how have Wales and Welsh people fared in this story of sickness? Was Wales a hotbed of epidemic diseases? Actually, historians haven't so far paid much attention to the subject, but the evidence is interesting.

Certainly Welsh people have suffered through the centuries, as we'll see.

But occasionally, Wales, its landscape and geography, have also served to protect its people from the worst effects of plague and pestilence.

Plagues and poxes The first recorded epidemic in Wales occurred in the sixth century. In 526AD, St Brioc of Brittany came to Ceredigion and wrote that the whole region was "overwhelmed by a great catastrophe".

This was Y vad velen (the yellow plague), part of an epidemic outbreak noted across Britain.

Outbreaks of a plague-like disease recurred in 526AD and 537AD, but a further epidemic of Y vad velen in 547, caught the imagination of Welsh bards and poets for several hundred years to come.

The biographer of St Teilo vividly described it as coming over the land like the "column of a watery cloud".

It was this "yellow pestilence" which "seized Maelgwyn, king of North Wales, and destroyed his country".

According to legend, Maelgwyn sought sanctuary in the church of Llanrhos but was restless.

Unable to resist looking out upon his kingdom, he peeped through the keyhole of the church door, but even this tiny exposure to the outside air was enough for him to catch the infection. Curiosity, in this case, killed the king.

Throughout the Middle Ages and medieval period, a succession of plagues and sicknesses continued to haunt Wales, but references are scant.

Various medieval Welsh annals and chronicles refer fleetingly to extreme events such as epidemics or natural phenomena which occurred from time to time.

In 896, it was even recorded that a plague of vermin "like moles" fell from the skies and devoured everything they encountered.

But the fear of sickness was certainly deeply entrenched in Welsh culture as it was elsewhere, and it was common for diaries and letters to contain references to troubling "new" diseases. In 1657, the Flintshire puritan Philip Henry made reference to reports of "fourscore children sickened of a new disease" in "Swansey in Glamorganshire".

In 1734, the Welsh MP John Campbell wrote from London to his young son, Prys, worrying about an outbreak of "violent coughs" affecting children "all about the countrey (sic)".

Some diseases, however, were so abhorrent that they even entered popular culture. Few achieved the same levels of infamy as did Y Frech Wen - the smallpox.

Smallpox was a virulent disease which became epidemic in 17th and 18th-century Britain, and accounted for around 15% of total deaths in the period.

Wales certainly did not escape. In 1722-23, 71 people died of the disease in Carmarthen, and further severe outbreaks followed over the next few years.

What made smallpox seem all the more vicious was that it was most often a disease of childhood. Surviving it was almost a rite of passage for children, but there was a sting in the tail since recovery, though it gave immunity from further infection, often left the sufferer horribly scarred. …

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