In Middle English, the noun disease (disaise, diseis(s)e, diseas(s)e, dises(s), desaise, deseisse, desese) descends from Old French desaise and is used in multiple ways, including to refer to general uneasiness or discomfort (OED, n. 1.a), a misfortune or grievance (MED, 1.c), mental distress or anxiety (MED, 2.a), general bodily discomfort (MED, 3), and bodily illness or disability (OED, n. 2 and MED, 4). Usage of the term moves from the Old French desaise, meaning a lack of ease or general inconvenience, to more specific illness of the mind and/or body by the mid-1300s. As a verb, disease means to deprive of ease or disturb (OED, v. 1.a and 1.b); by the late 1400s, it means to cause illness or to infect with disease (OED, v. 2). The adjective diseasy is used to indicate someone or something marked by discomfort or trouble (OED, 1) and later, “affected with, pertaining to, or producing disease; diseased, unhealthy, morbid” (OED, 2). Diseaseful is similarly used to describe someone or something that is either “fraught with discomfort, annoyance, or trouble” (OED, 1) or affected by disease (OED, 2), and, following the overall narrowing of the term, diseased is used with specific regard to bodily illness by 1467 (OED, a.).
Disease enters the English language in the fourteenth century, and the Old English adl or seocness and their variations were first used to describe illness. Uses of disease progress from indicating general inconvenience or annoyance (literally dis-ease) to a more medical focus on illness or lack of health in of the body or mind. Stemming from Galen’s humoural theories, disease was thought to be caused by an imbalance of humours as early as 1330, a notion that continued through the 17th century (Vaught 3-5). Disease was used in various ways through this medical lens: it could suggest bodily discomfort caused by illness, difficulty in performing a bodily function, general illness, specific illness of body or mind, a specific area of injury on the body (such as a lesion), and indiscriminate pain (Norri 303-4). These various uses demonstrate that many conditions could be categorized as kinds of disease. A book of medical treatments from the late fifteenth century, for instance, provides a recipe for an “oynement [that] is good for all maner of achys and dysesys” (Medical Recipes in Stockholm 125/14, qtd. in Norri 303). General physiological conditions such as hunger, thirst, and even menstruation could cause disease in the body, as could poor health and old age. Disease is also used to describe specific morbid conditions; Lanfranc of Milan, for example, refers to diseases of the nose, while Guy de Chauliac discusses liver disease (Norri 303).
In addition to referring to a general sense of annoyance or even anxiety, disease was also used to describe emotional disturbances like anger, fear, grief, or even mental illness. For instance, Platearius’ Practicus brevis categorizes a fever caused by “wrathe” as a “desese of Þe soule” (qtd. in Norri 304). John Gower discusses feelings of sorrow in relation to disease: “My sorwes thanne be so stronge Of that I se hem wel at ese, I can noght telle my desese” (Confessio Amantis 2.50). In one of the earliest first-person accounts of mental illness, Thomas Hoccleve refers to his illness as a “thowghtfull dissease,” or a disease of the mind (“The Complaint” 388); Hoccleve uses the term disease three times (344, 360, 380) in reference to his illness, interchangeably referring to it as a malady or sickness.
Later medieval and early modern examples (1500 and beyond) find disease used with other descriptors in order to name specific kinds of illnesses, including simple disease (a single disease without accompanying illnesses), compound disease (a disease presenting in combination with other illnesses), open disease (a disease on the surface of the body), and binding disease (an illness resulting in the blockage of bodily functions). Disease is also added to certain humours, to indicate illnesses caused by humoural imbalances, such as phlegmatic disease or choleric disease, and it is combined with bodily qualities, such as cold, hot, moist, or dry, to indicate illnesses caused by those physiological qualities (304).
As scholars have noted, some diseases, such as leprosy, Bubonic plague, and syphilis, were directly associated with sinfulness, excessive behavior, and/or spirituality—although not consistently or uniformly—in medieval literature (see Grigsby, especially 39-78, Metzler, especially 38-54, and Vaught, especially 1-86). For example, Cresseid is struck with leprosy for her sexual impropriety in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, while Margery Kempe (among many other religious men and women) seeks to kiss lepers as a way to get closer Christ’s suffering. Other religious men and women, such as Julian of Norwich, prayed to be struck with non-specific diseases as a way to strengthen their relationship with Christ.
Earlier editions of the bible use sick and sickness more often than disease. The Geneva Bible uses disease and its variants most consistently, while the Wycliffe Bible uses the greatest assortment of terms, including sijk, sorewe, wretchidnesse, langoures, and turmentis in their various forms. In general, the Old Testament uses disease most often in reference to the Plagues of Egypt and in descriptions of people with illnesses or of specific diseases. When discussing the leper in Leviticus 13:46, Wycliffe describes him as a “lepre,” the Geneva describes him as suffering “disease,” and the King James refers to “plague.” 2 Chronicles 12:16 in the Geneva and King James describes a “disease of bowels,” an illness Wycliffe calls “sorewe of wombe.” Menstruation is called a “disease” in the Geneva, “filth” in Wycliffe, and “uncleanness” or “sickness” in King James (Leviticus 18:19, 20:18). In addition to naming physical conditions, disease is also used figuratively, as when Ecclesiastes 6:2 presents vanity as a kind of illness. In the New Testament, the term is used primarily in reference to the healing powers of Jesus and the ill people seeking cure, such as the woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment in Matthew 9:20. While Wycliffe describes her illness as a “blodi flux,” the Geneva and King James describe her as “diseased with an issue of blood.” The “diseased” of Matthew 4:24 include people with a number of ailments, including possession, madness, and palsy.
Evidence and Images
Note: Disease is used interchangeably with many similar terms, including, sickness, infirmity, and plague, etc. across the Wycliffe, Geneva, and King James bibles.
1 Kings 15:23
2 Kings 1:2
2 Kings 8:8
2 Kings 8:9
2 Chronicles 6:29
2 Chronicles 12:16
2 Chronicles 21:18
2 Chronicles 12:19
2 Chronicles 22:6
2 Chronicles 24:25
Bibliography and Further Reading
The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 2 vols., Early English Text Society, Extra Series 81, 1900; reprint 1978; 82, 1901.
Gillespie, Vincent. “Seek, Suffer, and Trust: Ese and Disease in Julian of Norwich.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 39, 2017, pp. 129-158.
Grigsby, Byron Lee. Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Routledge, 2004.
Hoccleve, Thomas. “The Complaint” in Hoccleve’s Works, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society, 1892; rpt. 1937.
Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment in the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400. Routledge, 2005.
Norri, Juhani. Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375-1550: Body Parts, Sicknesses, Instruments, and Medicinal Preparations. Routledge, 2016.
Vaught, Jennifer C., ed. Rhetorics of Bodily Health and Disease in Medieval and Early Modern England. Ashgate, 2010.
Brett Ball, Jorden Denny, Karley Gesuck, Sydni Haney, Spencer Hawkins, Presley Holthaus, Dillon McCoy, Christian Millard, Riley Ponton, Brittany Steelman, and Amber Walter, all of Miami University Hamilton
Tory V. Pearman, Miami University Hamilton