The Old English adjective sick (séoc, sioc, sic) is from Germanic origin and describes someone that is “suffering from a physical ailment” (OED, A. adj., I.), “spiritually or morally ailing” through sin (OED, A. adj., II. 3), or “deeply affected by some strong feeling,” such as loathing, envy, sorrow, or desire (OED, A. adj., II. 4). In Old English, the noun séoc could indicate either a group of people who are ill or a single sick person (OED, B. n., 1 and 2). The Middle English adjective sick (sijk, sike, sick(e), sic, zik(e), sek(e), seik(e), siek(e), seck(e), sech, ceke, cec, sec, seo(c)ke) retains these definitions, adding “physically weak through age, weariness, emotional distress;” “spiritually weak, irresolute, or unstable;” and “weak in power, militarily, politically, socially” (MED, 5.a, b, and c). As a noun, it named a sick part of the body, as well as a person or persons with a disease, injury, or disability (MED, 8.a). It could be combined with other terms to name specific kinds of ill or disabled persons, for example, monthsik for mentally ill person, develsik for one possessed, and lovesik for a person sick with desire for another (MED, 8. a, b, and f). The noun sickness (OE—seocnes(se), siocnes(se), sicnes(se); ME—siknes(se), signesse, ceknesse, zicnesse, seccnesse, sechnesse, sekhnesse, siikensse, sceonesse) is used to describe a general state of being ill, whether through physical or emotional cause; a specific illness or malady (OED, 1. a and b); or the state of being spiritually or morally corrupt (OED, 2. a and b; MED, 2). In Middle English, sickness could also describe “something weakening or disabling” or the weakened state itself, whether “physical, emotional, spiritual, or social in nature” (MED, 4). The verb sicken (secnen, seeken, seekenyn, seken, sekene, sekyn, seaken. sicnen, sijknen, sikynyn, sicken) meant “to become affected with illness, to fall ill or sick” (OED, 1.a) and was used in both physiological and figurative contexts (OED, 1.b).
Sick(ness) was most often used to describe ill health in the Middle Ages. Most uses of the term center on bodily infirmity and can refer to illness in general in addition to covering a wide variety of specific diseases. The pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales, for instance, are on the way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket because he helped them with non-specific illnesses “whan that they were seeke” (General Prologue 18). In the South English Legendary, St. Thomas suffers from “syknesse of maldeflanke,” or a digestive illness (I. 132), while John Wycliffe describes men “siike in þe palesy” (Select English Works of John Wycliffe, II.23). The term could also apply to “special physiological states” such as pregnancy (MED, 1a.) and menstruation (Leviticus 20:18, KJV). Note the kinds and qualities of sickness in the medical dictionary (Norri).
Sick could also be used to describe physical impairments, thus demonstrating the blurry line between illness and disability. For instance, the Codex Exoniensis mentions “seonobennum seóc” (328, 17). Seonobennum (seonu-ben) indicates an injury to a sinew; coupled with séoc, the phrase suggests that the physical disability caused by the wound is a kind of sickness, and the translation provided for the term by the Bosworth-Toller is “crippled.” Beowulf’s mortal wounds are also framed as a sickness; he describes himself as “feorh-bennun séoc” (2741), or fatally sick, and he is later described as “Þeóden ellen-siócne” (2788), or king whose strength or bravery is weakened through sickness. In Middle English, specific impairments, such as deafness and blindness, are sometimes categorized as kinds of sickness. Lanfranc defines blindness as a “sijknessis of the i3en” and mentions that deafness is one of “manie sijknessis” found in the “eeris” (qtd. in Norri page and page). The Book of the Foundation of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London (1425) uses blind and sick interchangeably: “A Childe blynde from his birth…was browght…light and sight to the syke was restoryde” (23/25).
In addition to being a strictly physiological condition, sick(ness) could also describe an emotional or psychological response. Strong feelings such as sadness, rage, and repugnance could result in sickness. John Gower calls envy a sickness in Confessio Amantis: “If evere yit thin herte was Sek of an other mannes hele?” (I. 159); Layamon explains that King Leil becomes “sec þurh hefeʒere seorwe” in Brut (1396); and Thomas Malory describes Uther as falling sick “for pure angre” (8/9). Lovesickness, a condition brought on by unrequited love that resulted in physical and mental symptoms, was often described as a sickness of the heart. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus is perhaps one of the most famous medieval examples of one suffering lovesickness; indeed, he calls his unrequited desire for Criseyde “sorwes sike” (3.1172). Erotic desire that strayed outside of acceptable bounds was also considered a kind of sickness, as when Amnon becomes sick with desire for his half-sister in 2 Samuel 13:2. Sick(ness) could also apply to mental illness. For instance, the Old English compound “wod-seoc” is defined as “insane, mad, lunatic” in Bosworth-Toller. Margery Kempe endured a “grett bodyly sekenesse, wher thorw sche lost / reson and her wyttes a long tym” (22-3). Later, her violent fits of crying in response to thoughts and visions of Christ are described as a kind of sickness: onlookers surmised that “sum evyl spyrit vexid hir in hir body er ellys / that sche had sum bodyly sekeness” (909-10). In one of the earliest first-person accounts of mental illness, Thomas Hoccleve refers to himself as “brain-seke” (“The Complaint” 127) and uses sick(ness) in reference to his illness multiple times, interchangeably referring to it as a malady or disease.
Lastly, sick(ness) could apply to one’s moral or spiritual health. This association is present from the Old English period to the late-Middle English period. Sin itself is described as a kind of sickness. The Codex Exoniensis mentions “synnum seóce” (246), and William Langlund’s Piers Plowman notes that sin causes sickness and wounds to the body (B. xx. 303), to cite just two of numerous examples. As scholars have noted, this link between illness and sin was not consistently or uniformly applied in medieval literature and culture (see Grigsby, especially 39-78, Metzler, especially 38-54, and Vaught, especially 1-86), and it is complicated by associations between illness and godliness that were also present. Hagiographical literature, for instance, stresses the healing abilities of saints, both before and after their deaths. Religious men and women, such as Julian of Norwich, prayed for sickness and sought out the opportunity to serve the sick as a way to experience Christ’s bodily suffering and imitate his role as Christus medicus, or physician of the soul. People thought to be possessed by demons were referred to as develsick (MED, 8. f).
The Wycliffe edition of the bible uses sick and sickness far more often than later editions, and many times sick is used to describe general weakness or frailty in addition to physical illness. Interestingly, it uses the greatest assortment of terms when describing physical illness, including sorewe, wretchidnesse, langoures, and turmentis in their various forms. The Geneva and King James versions use disease or infirmity in addition to sick(ness). Similar to disease, in general, the Old Testament uses sick(ness) most often in reference to the descriptions of people with illnesses or of specific diseases. It is also used when describing the Plagues of Egypt. Menstruation is called a sickness in Leviticus 15:33 and 20:18, and Amnon is sick with desire for his half-sister, as noted above, in 2 Samuel 13:2. In the New Testament, references to sickness focus on the healing power Jesus or his disciples. The “sick” go into the streets are cured after praying to him and touching the hem of his cloak (Mark 6:56). Jesus imbues the twelve disciples with the ability to cure illness and cast out demons in Luke 9:1, and Paul heals a man “sick in his feet” (Acts 14:8 WYC; “impotent in his feet” in GNV and KJV).
Evidence and Images
Note: Sickness is used interchangeably with many similar terms, including disease, infirmity, and plague, etc. across the Wycliffe, Geneva, and King James bibles. Due to the scope of this entry, instances of sick that refer to general weakness or do not have to do with disability are not listed (this occurs far more often in the Wycliffe edition).
1 Samuel 19:14
1 Samuel 30:13
2 Samuel 12:15
2 Samuel 13:2
2 Samuel 13:5
2 Samuel 13:6
1 Kings 8:37
1 Kings 14:1
1 Kings 14:5
1 Kings 17:17
2 Kings 1:1
2 Kings 1:2
2 Kings 8:7
2 Kings 8:8
2 Kings 8:9
2 Kings 8:29
2 Kings 9:16
2 Kings 13:14
2 Kings 20:1
2 Kings 20:12
2 Chronicles 6:28
2 Chronicles 32:24
2 Chronicles 6:28
2 Chronicles 6:29
2 Chronicles 16:12
2 Chronicles 21:152
2 Chronicles 22:6
2 Chronicles 32:24
Song of Solomon 2:5
Song of Solomon 5:8
1 Corinthians 8:11
1 Corinthians 11:30
2 Timothy 4:20
Bibliography and Further Reading
The Book of the Foundation of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London, ed. N. Moore, Early English Text Society, Original Series 163, 1923; reprint 1971.
The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley. TEAMS, Medieval Institute, 1996.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales,” The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson. Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 2 vols., Early English Text Society, Extra Series 81, 1900; reprint 1978.
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.
Layamon. “Brut,” Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, U of Michigan, 2 Feb. 2019, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/LayCal.
Malory, Thomas. Works, ed. E. Vinaver, rev. P. J. C. Field, 3rd ed., 3 vols. Oxford UP, 1990.
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.
Turner, Marion. “Illness Narratives in the Later Middle Ages: Aderne, Chaucer, and Hoccleve,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 46, no. 4, 2016, pp. 61-87.
Vaught, Jennifer C., ed. Rhetorics of Bodily Health and Disease in Medieval and Early Modern England. Ashgate, 2010.
Select English Works of John Wycliffe, ed. Thomas Arnold, 3 vols. Oxford, 2017.
“South English Legendary,” Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, U of Michigan, 2 Feb. 2019, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/AHA2708.0001.001.
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