That's something people quite often say in novels set in mediaeval times, but whether a murrain is a nasty attack of indigestion, a spell of bad luck in the horse shoe tossing competition, or rats moving into your kitchen, I have never thought to enquire.
Titania does give us a clue in Midsummer Night's Dream:
The fold stands empty in the drownéd field
And crows are fatted on the murrain flock.
but I have only ever read or watched MND, not studied it, and so I've always just let myself be washed over by the glory of the verse without bothering too much about every tiny little detail.
But if we were in any doubt that a murrain was a Bad Thing, then the Book of Exodus makes it clear enough:
Behold my hand shall be upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep there shall be very grievous murrain.
The Philip Medhurst collection of Bible illustrations
So what is a murrain, exactly?
Well, the point is rather that no one ever really knew. It was anything that made large numbers of domestic mammals drop down dead - perhaps rinderpest, perhaps erysipelas, perhaps foot-and-mouth or anthrax - some of which diseases could finish off quite a few humans, too.
And if the murrain didn't get you, the famine that ensued after the loss of your animals might; and if you survived the famine then the Black Death might well come along when you were too weak to put up much of a fight against it, and the murrain would get you after all.
I'm never going to wish a murrain on anyone, that's for sure. But when I next begin a cold, I might try bravely dismissing it as just a touch of murrain.
It has a heroic ring.
Word To Use Today: murrain. This word comes from the Old French morine, from morir, to die, from the Latin morī.