In their attempts to remain free from disease, people in earlier centuries faced a number of serious challenges.
Poverty and malnutrition were common. Most people in medieval Britain were peasants who relied on the crops they grew and the few animals they kept to survive. After a poor harvest, they became even more susceptible to disease. Children were particularly vulnerable and it is estimated that 30 per cent died before the age of seven.
Famine was a constant threat. During the Great Famine of 1315–17, it is thought that 10 per cent of Britain’s population died. People often had to eat all their animals and the following year's seed. This created problems for future years.
War was an ever-present part of life. English kings fought wars against enemies at home and abroad. Battles were often brutal and fought at close range. At the Battle of Towton in 1461 it is believed that 28,000 men died – 1 per cent of the English population. Armies also lived off the land taking food from peasants, or burning their houses and fields, therefore adding to their problems.
Other causes of disease were numerous. Wooden houses meant fire was a major hazard, while contaminated food caused many deaths. Street accidents involving carts or animals were common, as were accidents at work, in an age where health and safety was unheard of. Even travel had its dangers, with the problem of finding safe shelter at night, and avoiding robbers. For women one of the most serious threats was childbirth.
Though some of these diminished over time, problems like poverty and malnutrition remained a problem into the 19th century and beyond.