Ague (pronounced A-gyoo) was once endemic in Sussex.
It was a severe fever marked by recurring chills, shivering, and sweating. Sometimes, ague refers just to the chills and shivering, topped off by joint and bone pain.
Up until the 19th century, however, ague was the English word for malaria, a disease usually associated with hot countries. Yet it was a major cause of sickness and death in England from the mid-16th century until the early decades of 18th century. Most likely it was caused by an unlucky combination of climate change, suspect water in marshland, and, of course, mosquitoes.
Ague was prevalent enough that Shakespeare mentions it in nine of his plays. The illness features in the books Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and also Gulliver’s Travels.
In Great Expectations, Pip takes some food to an escaped convict.
As the convict stops eating to take a drink, Pip notes the illness: ‘The convict shivered all the while, so violently, that it was quite as much as he could do to keep the neck of the bottle between his teeth, without biting it off.
‘I think you have got the ague,’ said I … ‘It’s bad about here,’ I told him. ‘You’ve been lying out on the marshes, and they’re dreadful aguish. Rheumatic too.’
Sussex folklore provides a cure for the ague with the following spell:
‘Ague, ague, I thee defy,
Three days shiver,
Three days shake,
Make me well for Jesus’ sake.’
To make it work, the words had to be written on a three-cornered piece of paper that must be worn around the neck until it drops off. The piece of paper, that is, not the neck!
A spider was also considered a useful antidote for ague. If taken internally, it had to be rolled up in a cobweb and swallowed as if it were a pill. If applied externally, it was placed in a nutshell and hung around the neck in a bag of black silk.