Measles in the Tudor Era

Measles in the Tudor Era

This is part of a series on the history of measles, as described and treated in medical or childcare manuals of their times. Today I’ll be looking at what Thomas Phaer, the father of English pediatrics, had to say about measles in his book, The Boke of Chyldren, published in 1544.

In the mid 16th century, in Europe, smallpox and measles were considered two sides of the same coin owing to their presentation and how the ancient Greeks classified them. Seven years after Phaer’s book was published, the young King Edward VI, then 14 years old, in April of 1552, wrote in his journal,

“I fell sick of the measles and the smallpox.”

Historians believe that he had measles first then came down with small pox. Sir John Hayward, his contemporary biographer wrote,

“In Aprill, in the sixth yeere of the reigne of the King, hee fell sicke of the meazles, whereof in a short time hee well recovered: afterwards he sickened of the small Poxe”.

By May, he was fully recovered from both and in good health. Huzzah! But then in January of the following year the cough started.

Tuberculosis was endemic in Tudor England (and continued to be so for hundreds of years). For healthy people, the body keeps TB in check, but it’s an opportunistic bugger, waiting until your defenses are down.Well, unfortunately for Edward and everyone else who contracts measles, the measles virus suppresses host immunity to tuberculosis (and so does the live measles vaccine, which may explain why certain countries do not provide it).

King Edward VI died from TB on July 6th, 1553, very likely due to his previous infection with measles. They could not have known the connection at the time, nor does it seem that Phaer recognized the association with pneumonia that often follows measles today. 

Of small pockes and measylles

Thys dysease is common and familier, called of the Grekes by the generall name of exanthemata, and of Plinie papule et pituite eruptiones. Notwythstandyng, the consent of writer hath obteyned a destinction of it in .ii. Kyndes, that is to saye: varioli the measels and morbilli, called of us the small pockes. 

They be bothe of one nature and procede of one cause, savynge that the mesyls are engendered of the inflammation of blood, and the smal pockes of the inflammation of bloode myngled wyth choler. 

The sygnes of them bothe are so manifest to syght that they nede no farther declaration. For at the fyrste some have an ytche and a fretyng of the skyn, as yf it had ben rubbed wyth nettles, payne in the head and in the backe, the face redde in coloure and flecked, feare in the slepe, great thyrst, rednes of the eyes, beatynge in the temples, shotyng and pryckyng through all the bodye. Then anone after, when they breake out, they be sene of dyvers fasshyons and fourmes: sometyme as it were a drye scabbe or a leprye spreadyng over all the membres, other whyles in pushes, pimples, and wheles, rennyng with moch corruption and matter, and wyth great peyne of the face and throte, dryenesse of the tonge, horcenes of voyce, and, in some, quiverynge of the harte with swownyge. 

Considering the variations Phaer describes, it is possible that what they called measles and small pox could be what we’d recognize at different diseases (in addition to measles and smallpox), for example german measles or rubella, fifth’s disease, chicken pox, and so on. 

The causs of these evell affections are rehersed of authours to be chyefly foure: 

Fyrste, of the superfluyties whych myght be corrupte in the woumbe of the mother, the chylde there beyng and recyvynge the same into the poores; the whyche at the tyme of debility of nature coulde not be expelled but, the chyld increasynge afterwards in strengthe, is dryven oute of the veynes into the upper skynne.

Secondarilie, it maye come of a corrupte generation, that is to saye whan it was engedred in an evyl season, the mother beynge sycke of her natural infirmitye. For suche as are begotten that tyme very seldome escape the disease of leprye. 

The thyrde cause maye be an evylle dyete of the nourse or of the child it selfe, whan they feade uppon meates that encrease rooten humours, as milk and fyshe both at one meale, lykewise excesse of eatynge and drynkynge and surfeyte. 

Fourthlye, this dysease commeth by the waye of contagion whan a sycke person infecteth an other, and in that case it hath great affinitie wyth the pestylence.

Phaer gives four causes of measles and small pox, and they are: contracting while in the womb from a mother who is infected; being conceived during mother’s menstrual cycle; from a diet that upsets the balance of humors in the body, for example combining fish and dairy in one meal; and finally, catching it from someone who is infected. And yes, this is hundreds of years before germ theory. Yet, even then they vaguely understood the concept of contagious disease owing to their experiences with the plague. 


The best and most sure helpe in this case is not to meddle wyth any kynde of medicines, but to let nature woorke her operation.

Notwythstandynge, yf they be too slowe in commynge oute it shall be good for you to gyve the chyld to drinke sodden mylke and saffron, and so kepe hym close and warme whereby they may the soner issue forthe, but in no case to administre anye thynge that might eyther represse the swellynge of the skynne or to coole the heate that is wythin the membres. For yf thys dysease, which shuld be expelled by a natural action of the body to the long healthe afterwarde of the pacient, were by force of the medicine cowched in agayne, it wre even ynough to destrye the chyld.

Therfore, abide the ful breakng out of the sayd wheales, and then (yf they be not ripe) ease the chyldes peyne by makynge a bath of holihock, dil, camomyl, and fenel; yf they bbe rype and matter, then take feneel, wormewood, and sage, and seeth them in water to the thyde part, wherin ye maye bathe hym with a fyne cloth or a sponge. Alwayes provyded that he take no colde durynge the tyme of hys sycknesse. 

The wyne wherin fygges have ben sodde is singuler good in the same case, and may be well used in all tymes and causes. 

Yf the wheles be outragyous and great, with moche corrosion and venim, some make a decoction of roses and plantayne in the water of oke, and dissolve it in a lytle Englysh honye and camphore. 

The decoction of water betonye is approved good in the sayde dyseases. Lykewyse the oyntment of herbes, wherof I made mention in the cure of scabbes, is excedynge holsome after the sore are rype.

Moreover it is good to droppe in the pacientes eyes, .v. or .vi. tymes a daye, a lytle rose or fenel water to comforte the syght, lest it be hurte by contynuall renning of matter. This water must be mynistred in the somer colde; and in the winter ye ought to aply it luke warme. 

The same rose water is also good to gargle in hys mouthe, yf the chylde be then payned in the throte. 

And lest the condytes of the nose shuld be stopped, it shall be very expedient to let hym smell often to a sponge wete in the juce of saverye, stronge vyngere, and a lytle rosewater. 

To take awaye the spottes and scarres of the smal pockes and measels. 

The blood of a bulle or of an hare is moche commended of authours to be annoynted hote upon the scarres, and also the lycour that yssueth out of shepes clawes or gootes clawes, hette in the fyer. Item, the dryppyng of a cygnet or swanne layed upon the place oftentymes hote. 

Phaer’s book was intended for a general audience, so most of his remedies are based on ingredients that might be found in the pantry of fairly well-off but not medically trained household. Even if the treatments did little or nothing for the patient, it likely helped caregivers feel that at least they’d done something.

He does not describe measles as a fatal condition, though he warns that trying to repress the disease with medicine may cause it to be even worse later, possibly killing the child. In Dr. Tuley’s description of Measles, he describes the “black measles” which is a rare but incredibly virulent form of measles that causes the blood to pool under the skin giving the patient a dark color and I wonder if that is what Phaer is warning against. 

Something that is important to remember is that these diseases are not static entities, they evolve over time and geographies, and it’s possible that through the centuries we will be able to see changes in the symptoms. It’s possible that smallpox that medieval writers associated with measles, and which Edward VI caught directly after the measles was the most common secondary infection, whereas in later centuries including today, it is pneumonia. 

I hoped you enjoyed or at least learned something, measles isn’t the cheeriest of topics. if you’d like to support The Baby Historian please share, like, subscribe, follow, or become a patron on Patreon. Patrons get the smug satisfaction of knowing they’re helping a pleb like me, and they get exclusive posts, previews— and of course my eternal gratitude.


Holmes, Grace, Frederick Holmes, Julia McMorrough. 2001. “The Death of Young King Edward VI.” New England Journal of Medicine, 345(1), 60-62.

Phaer, Thomas. 1544. The Boke of Chyldren. London: Whitechurche.

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