Tuberculosis or anemia? No, I’m not doing these online searches to figure out what ails me. I’m trying to figure out what ails my character. Or since my current work in progress is based on a real-life person, what might have ailed my character.
The character is question is Fastrada, Charlemagne’s most influential and most hated wife (my take on her is that she was the victim of a backlash). Not much is known about her. An East Frank, she married King Charles in 783 and likely was a teenager. They had two daughters, born about 785 and 787.
She died in 794.The cause of her death is not disclosed, nor are any symptoms described. But a 791 letter to her from Charles implies she is suffering from a chronic condition as well as indicates how much he cares for his wife. He asks her to write to him more often, specifically about her health.
So what is a historical novelist to do?
To set another time and place, I wanted something that could be treated or prevented today but would be fatal in another era. So many maladies to choose from: smallpox, polio, diphtheria, malaria, and on and on. Makes the novelist thankful she lives in an age of vaccines and antibiotics.
My first choice for Fastrada’s illness was tuberculosis, also called consumption because the disease appeared to consume the patient. In the industrialized world, you don’t see it that often, and it is treated with antibiotics (that is, if you don’t get a super germ resistant to drugs).
In another era, patients lived with TB for years. The disease gets worse over time, but it’s erratic. Cadaverous patients could recover, and patients could be in remission for several years. TB’s puzzling nature would help explain a legend about Fastrada being miraculously healed. I even checked out an excellent book about what it was like to live with TB, Living in the Shadow of Death by Sheila M. Rothman.
The problem: TB is contagious. Charles was healthy except for the last few years of his life, and he lived until 814. If Fastrada had TB, he would have kept sleeping with his wife. Medieval people didn’t know about germs. They often attributed disease to sorcery, dwarves (or some other supernatural creatures), or an angry God.
So now I’m trying anemia, which she gets during her second pregnancy. Today in the developed countries, pregnant women prevent anemia by taking vitamins with iron supplements. In undeveloped countries, the ailment can be a long-term complication of pregnancy. It can be chronic and if untreated, leaves patients fatigued, among other symptoms.
Now excuse me while I go take my vitamins.