Now might you see his Spring of Youth decay,
The Verdure dye, the Blossoms fall away;
The foul Infection o’er his Body spread,
Prophanes his Bosome, and deforms his Head;
His wretched Limbs with filth and stench o’er flow,
While Flesh divides, and shews the Bones below.
Dire Ulcers (can the Gods permit them) prey
On his fair Eye-balls, and devour their Day,
Whilst the neat Pyramid below, falls Mouldring
Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (1530)
When the outbreak of an epidemic strikes a population, panic spreads widely and quickly. As if it were a frenzied stampede, many want to disassociate themselves from the disease and from those afflicted by it. When the epidemic is related to sexual activity, this rejection will be even more categorical and violent. We have a recent example of this in the case of AIDS, whose official appearance in 1981 thrust the media and the public opinion into an overwhelming state of anxiety. The initial inability to correctly explain or catalogue the disease served to single out the gay community as ultimately responsible and even the unique carrier of the disease. So much so that until the term ‘acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’ was coined in July 1982 the disease was intolerantly referred to as ‘Gay Cancer’ or GRID, standing for ‘gay-related immune deficiency’. The reaction that followed in subsequent years only made matters worse as prostitutes and intravenous drug users were also detected as carriers of the disease. There was thus medical and social confusion, an abhorring of certain sexual or recreational practices, marginalisation of minorities and the belief – mainly rooted in very religious and conservatives communities - that God was righteously punishing sin. The reason why I bring forward this anecdotic account of the history of AIDS is because it has certain parallelisms with what happened in sixteenth century Europe when syphilis ‘entered the spotlight’ – and the expression is pertinent, as its appearance was spectacularly abrupt and violent. The period when syphilis first appeared in Europe was an extraordinary one to have lived in. Renaissance Italy was at its peak, while the classic revival had spread throughout Europe along with Humanism as successfully as syphilis would in the years to come. A New World had just been discovered and its wonders and long-hidden treasures were just starting to be brought to the Old Continent for amazed Europeans to admire. The year 1500 was approaching – with all its wondrous and apocalyptic forecasts – and the religious unrest – or well-founded curiosity – that would lead to 1517 and the subsequent Reformation was already being nurtured. It was into this evolving and increasingly culturally rich society that syphilis erupted, and it did so in a tense moment, when Italy was being disputed by the leading powers of Spain and France and with the papal forces in the middle.
The variety of names that the disease quickly acquired speaks volumes of how fast it spread and, as we shall see, these names were sometimes prompted by xenophobic contempt felt for a given people, many times a neighbouring country. Thus in Naples it was called the French Disease, while the French called it the Neapolitan Disease. When the former name had been retained by most of Europe, the French tried to disassociate themselves from it by giving it a neutral name, morbus venereus, but this option had a very limited following. Another important aspect of sixteenth century reactions to syphilis was a hardly concealed misogyny. Even if most doctors and specialists writing about the disease conceded that the pox was created through the ‘orgy of lust’ between a man and a woman, the latter was ultimately held responsible for the spread of the French Disease, as she ‘lured’ men into sin and contagion. These considerations were of course entangled inside a bigger picture; a theocentric one, in which God’s hierarchically pre-ordained earthly world was being destroyed by the sins of humankind, who deserved a punishment for it. Not only the sickness had been sent by God, but also the remedies (mainly based on mercury and guaiacum), and the doctors.
The intent of this essay is to explore several social aspects of sixteenth century reactions to syphilis, mainly God’s power over the lives of human beings, the blame put on women and the xenophobic feelings that it prompted, and how they reflected in the writings of four men. The works chosen to explore these topics have been picked up according to a chronological criterion. Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) was an Imperial knight and Lutheran monk whose work, De Morbo Gallico, published in Mainz in 1519, is crucial because of its condition as a first-hand patient account of the history and treatment of the disease. Indeed, Hutten contracted the disease in 1508 and would ultimately succumb to it fifteen years later. I will be using Thomas Poynet’s translation from Latin, published in London in 1533. The work of Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553), a Veronese physician, scholar, poet and atomist, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus, is important not only because of its poetic and metaphoric approach, but also because he invented the term ‘syphilis’, although it would not be consistently coined until the eighteenth century. I will be using Nahum Tate’s 1686 translation, published in London in 1686. The third book to be explored is A Short and profitable Treatise touching the cure of the disease called Morbus Gallicus by Vnctions (London, 1579), by William Clowes (1540-1604), who was in charge of those afflicted by the French Disease in London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and would later be a surgeon to the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth I. The last tract used in this article is Easie, certaine, and perfect method, to cure and preuent the Spanish sicknes. Wherby the learned and skilfull Chirurgian may heale a great many other diseases (London, 1596), by Peter Lowe (c. 1550-1610), a former Catholic who had worked as a surgeon for Philip II’s army and who would later in life become a surgeon to Henry IV of France and James VI of Scotland. The main reason for choosing these two last tracts, their publications so closely coupled in time, was to determine if the events of 1588 altered English mindsets in their perception of the disease.
The first clear assertion common to all four authors is that the French Disease was God’s punishment for the sins of humankind. It was in this spirit that Christianity interpreted the words of Savonarola’s apocalyptic message of 1495 that, ‘as Almighty God saw the sins of Italy multiply [...]’, he ‘was unable to bear it any longer and decided to cleanse his Church with a great scourge’. In his well-known poem, Fracastoro uses a mythological metaphor to explain why and how this came to happen. Although occurring in ancient times, his account can be extrapolated to the sixteenth century. In it, the shepherd Syphilus, who takes care of King Alcithous stock, angry because extreme heat and persistent drought have befallen upon the kingdom of Atlantis, decides, after several blasphemies against Apollo, to adore his king instead of his god, provoking a revolution. The king, overjoyed at the prospect of being treated like a god, orders the altars dedicated to Apollo be removed and proclaims himself the only deity. Fracastoro continues his account with Apollo’s reaction:
Th’all seeing Sun no longer could sustain
These practices, but with enrag’d Disdain
Darts forth such pestilent malignant Beams,
As shed infection on Air, Earth and Streams;
From whence this Malady its birth receiv’d,
And first th’ offending Syphilus was griev’d,
Who rais’d forbidden Altars on the Hill,
And Victims bloud with impious Hands did spill;
He first wore Buboes dreadfull to the sight,
First felt strange Pains and sleepless past the Night;
From him the Malady receiv’d its name,
The neighbouring Shepherds catcht the spreading Flame:
At last in City and in Court ‘twas known,
And seiz’d th’ambitious Monarch on his Throne.
These verses make clear not only the fact that it is God (here identified with Apollo), who is behind the scourge that afflicts humankind, but also that he has sent this terrible disease because of the sins of all. The French Disease recognises no social boundaries, for society has sinned as a whole, and thus neither peasantry (Syphilus), nor urban patriciate (City), nor nobility (Court), nor royalty (Monarch) are safe from it. Christianity in general perceived the disease as the result of ‘the wrathe of god, and [...] his punyshement for our euyll lyvynge’ and ‘a notable testimonye of the iust wrath of God agaynst that filthy sinne [lust]’. Peter Lowe further enlightens us, although admittedly not fulfilling his promise not to ‘intermedle holy things with profane’, when he explains that ‘for error commeth punition, and for sin, death, and so they think [theologians] that GOD doth send it, for a scourge to the people for whoredom’ and that ‘we may (no doubt) attribute the originall of all diseases vnto the indignation of God, as the first cause’. He goes on writing that ‘to refraine the filthy lusts of men and women, God hath permitted thys sicknes to raigne among them, as a punishment for sinne’. The views held by Fracastoro and Hutten should be linked to the millenarian interpretations of the 1490s, which ascribed the French invasion of 1494, and the natural disasters – in the form of floods, famine, and bad weather – that preceded and succeeded Charles VIII’s campaign, as a result of the forthcoming year 1500. Those held by Clowes and Lowe, even if imbued with the remnants of Renaissance culture, were also the product of their own times, those of the ‘Reformation of Manners’, in which a new perspective – albeit still a theocentric one – that claimed Job as a patron the syphilitic cures, was being born in the context of Christian Reformation.
Consequently, the fact that remedies did appear – and they did so fairly soon – could only be explained if these also came directly from God, without whom humankind was definitely doomed. Ulrich von Hutten exhorts the reader to ‘give thankes upwarde unto god, bothe for good and euylle: howe moche are we bounde for the gyfte of Guaiacum’ and, even more clearly, he affirms that ‘this medicine (to) be gyuen us of god, seinge hit neuer helpeth, excepte a ma[n] be gyuen to holines of life’. Clowes suggests that we should ‘forget not to be tha[n]kful vnto our good [and] gracious god, [that] hath ordained such remedyes for our comfort, helpe, and profite’, and even Lowe, whose tract is much more theologically sober than the previous two, says that he has learnt the treatments which he proposes with ‘Gods helpe’.
The disease affected thus all humankind, and this ‘democratisation’ of syphilis meant that no one was exempt of it even if they followed the doctors’ good advice. From the very first moment, everyone was clear about the main contagion risks and the safest way to avoid them. Fracastoro advices:
Abstain however from the Act of Love,
For nothing can so much destructive prove:
Bright Venus hates polluted Mysteries,
And ev’ry Nymph from foul embraces flies.
Dire practice! Poison with Delight to bring,
And with the Lovers Dart, the Serpent’s sting.
His exhortation, however, is made in the midst of many others – against getting too much sleep, against sad thoughts, against not following a proper diet, etc. – and, perhaps concentrated on his masterful command of poetry; he fails to give sex as a means of contagion the importance that the other three give to it. Hutten gives quite an extensive description on how the disease is contracted and who are less prone to fall into debauchery. It is worth producing it in its entirety:
It is thought this kynde [the French sickness] nowe adayes to growe in any person, but trhough infection by defilynge of hym selfe, which thing especially happeneth by copulation. For it appereth manifestly, that yonge children / olde men, and other, whiche are not gyuen to the bodily lust, beth very seldome enfected therwith. And the more that man is gyuen to wantonnesse, the sooner he is infected. And as they lyue, that beth taken therwith / so other it shortely leaueth them, or longe holdeth them, or vtterly consumeth them. For it is very easy vnto the Italians and Spanyardes, and to suche as liue soberly, but through our surfetynge and intemperate lyuynge, hit dothe longe contynyue with vs, and greuousely dothe vexe and chafe vs.
William Clowes shares the same opinion, writing that the greatest cause of syphilitic contagion is ‘the licentious, and beastly disorder of a great number of rogues, and vagabondes: The filthye lyfe of many lewd and idell persons, both men, and women, about the citye of London, and the great nu[m]ber of lewd alehowses, which are the very nests and harbourers of such filty creatures: By means of whiche disordered persons, some other of better disposition[n] are many tymes infected’. Lowe agreed, as stated earlier. The way of transmission is of vital importance when trying to understand social reactions to syphilis in the sixteenth century. The disease might have been God-sent as a punishment, but its consequences stemmed from evil, and the ultimate agent provocateur of the scourge is the devil, aided by women, as we shall see. There was a perennial and anxious fear of contamination; and minorities of any kind were seen as suspicious, subversive, a serious attempt against God’s pre-ordained and well-organised universe. This fear of being exposed to contagion, of being polluted in body and mind by an unclean disease pivots around a key point brought up by Clowes when he speaks of ‘other of better disposition[n]’ being infected. For no doubt, Europeans must have felt puzzled as to why a disease so virulent, a disease that made God’s displeasure so obvious, could also infect those that were innocent of licentiousness, such as young children, old people or even younger men and women. Clowes tells us that, although the sickness is said to be ‘enge[n]dred by the accompaning with uncleane women’ he has treated patients, both male and female, who showed no signs of the disease on their genitals, where the disease was supposed to begin showing symptoms. Lowe provides us with a lengthier description of some cases that do not involve fornication but through which one can contract the French Disease, such as lying in an ‘unclean’ bed sheet, sharing clothes or a bed – when no sexual activity is involved – with infected persons, kissing a syphilitic, running over the spittle of someone who has carried the disease for a long time, or sitting on a toilet previously used by an infected person. He also explains how infants can contract the disease by suckling from the breasts of their nurses if these have been infected. Both Clowes and Lowe deal with the diseased in their treatises with a somewhat aggressive contempt, but they seem to have a soft spot for infected children. Clowes asks the reader ‘What should I speak of young children, wherof diuers haue bene greuously uered with this disease’ and finishes with an empathic remark about the young children he has treated (ages ranging between four and twelve), stating that ‘nether was of strength, to haue committed any suche [unclean] act’.
There is no such grace shown to women. In Christian society, women were held responsible for the original sin and were seen as inferior to men, weak and feeble-minded. Women themselves, even if learned, shared this opinion, prompting the Veronese Isotta Nogarola (1418-1499) to declare that women should be held less responsible than men in the original sin only because they were men’s inferiors and thus Eve had been imperfect, whereas Adam, who was perfect, allowed original sin to happen. Women were considered dangerous, as they lured men into sin through their seductive charms, thus contributing to the contamination of society. Sex was an unclean act and only adequate within the context of a marriage legally ratified by the Church and it only served the purpose of reproduction. It was, in short, the only acceptable outlet for sex. Obviously, prostitutes or ‘unclean’ women, were considered to be the lowest layer of society, sex fiends who had condemned themselves to the fires of hell with scarce chances for redemption and who devoted their lives to bringing forward the condemnation of the men that fell under their wicked spell. Yet, they must have been very popular, as doctors thought – rightly – that they were the main vehicle for the spread of the French Disease. Even if the authors were are considering here conceded that the origins of the disease lay in both men and women, there is a whiff of misogyny that puts a greater deal of blame in women. Ulrich von Hutten, who knew what he was talking about, makes several remarks on this point. After discussing some of the symptoms that afflicted male patients – among which he gives his own personal experience – he describes what happens in the case of female patients, but giving a hint that might enlighten us on what his thoughts were relating to what has been discussed earlier:
This thing as touching wome[n] refleth i[n] their secret places, hauing in those places litle prety sores ful of venom[ous] poison, being very da[n]gerous, for those [that] unknowingly medle with the[m]. The which sicknes gotte[n] by such infected wome[n], is so moch the more veheme[n]t [and] greuous, how moch they be inwardly poluted and corrupted.
And later on in his work he goes on:
They shall absteyne them selfes longe tyme frome the flesshely acte: Bycause they that be recouered through Guaiacum, haue theyr bodies very tender and utterly weak as yet, though they had bene lately newe bornes: And therefore if they shulde haue the company of woman, wherby the newe gotten strength is weke and grene, and not yet ryped: it wolde by and by dissolue and destroy the strengthe and myghtis of all the members for euer. And for as moche as the use of carnall copulation bryngeth into peryll not one member by hym selfe but al the hole bodye at one choppe: What other thynge may we saye, he pretendeth, that medleth carnally with women (being so febled) tha[n] wyllyngly to flee hym selfe, or at the leste speedily distroy his naturall strength, and playnly caste his helth away?
The first thing that strikes the reader as important is that the more ‘inwardly poluted and corrupted’ the woman is, the more violently the French Disease will attack its host. This assertion is directly connected to the Early Modern idea of pollution; of contamination of body, mind, and soul through sin. So, even if it is syphilitic men that Hutten is talking about, in his eyes it is far worse if they contract this disease through women who are contaminated; that is, prostitutes or women of ‘loose morals’, for these are focus of contagion both physical and spiritual. But what is even more shocking is that women are not considered as being sick themselves in a treatable manner. Hutten talks about how a man can be weak or may have lost his ‘might’ after receiving his treatment against the French Disease, but he never gives a single clue on how women should behave once they have been cured. Unfairly enough, women appear in Hutten’s tract both as a vehicle of disease and as a medical non-entity.
Clowes, although harsher in his consideration of those who contract the disease, tends to make no distinction between the patients’ sex: both men and women are equally guilty. Lowe, who is more benevolent or thoughtful than Hutten, does retake Hutten’s line that ‘this maladie proceedeth cheefely from the act of Venus, whe[n] men have to doe with women polluted with that infection’, although he concedes, in a rather graphic description, that contagion occurs during ‘frication’ due to the ‘composition of the secret parts of both sexe’, and that there are other causes of contagion, already cited above.
Intolerant remarks against women are not the only common rules in these tracts. In the sixteenth century, when incipient notions of national identity were starting to develop, xenophobic remarks about different countries or cultures were rife. It is interesting to note that the chronologically older works, those of Hutten (1519), Fracastoro (1530), and Clowes (1579) refer to the disease as being ‘French’, whereas Lowe’s work (1596), written in post-Armada England, refers to it as being ‘Spanish’. We should now consider what the authors had to say about the ‘national origins’ of syphilis and how the people accused of being the source of contamination are treated. Hutten is quite mild and even respectful in his description:
It hathe pleased god, that in our tyme sycknesses shuld aryse, whiche were to our forefathers (as it may wel co[n]iectured) vnknowe[n]. In the yere of Christ 1493 or there about, this pestiferous euyll creped amongst the people, not only in Fraunce, but first appered at Naples, in the frenchemennes hoste, (wherof it toke his name) whiche kept warre vnder the frenche kyng Charles, before hit appeared in any other place. By whiche occasion the frenche man puttynge from them this abhorred name, calle it not the frenche pockes / but the euyl of Naples / reckenynge to theyr rebuke, if this pestilent disease shulde be named the frenche pockes. Not withstandynge the co[n]sent of all nacions hath obteyned / and we also in this boke wyll calle hit the frenche pockes, not for any enuye that we beare to so noble and gentyll a nacion, but bycause we fere, that all me[n] shuld not vnderstande / if we gaue it any other name.
Setting aside Hutten’s dating mistake, as we know the French pox first appeared after late 1494, his empathic treatment of the French people is obvious and a remarkable display of tolerance or of, at least, a certain understanding that undoubtedly stems from Ulrich von Hutten’s own syphilitic condition. He is using the Latin name morbo gallico to refer to syphilis out of convenience, not because he bears a grudge to the French. Yet, he uses it. Fracastoro is less diplomatic when he says:
And from what Seeds the Malady began,
Our Song shall tell: To Naples first it came
From France, and justly took from France his Name.
He then considers the possibility of the infection coming from the contacts that were taking place between the New World and the Old, but he dismisses it, concluding that it must come from France, since it appears that it came from nowhere else:
Yet observation rightly taken draws
This new Distemper from some newer Cause;
Nor Reason can allow that this Disease,
Came first by Comerce from beyond the Seas;
Since instances in divers Lands are shown,
To whom all Indian Traffick is unknown:
Nor could th’ Infection from the Western Clime
Seize distant Nations at the self same time;
Nor can th’ Infection first be charg’d on Spain,
That fought new Worlds beyond the Western Main.
Since Pyrene’s foot, to Italy,
It shed its Bane on France, while Spain was free.
This was probably influenced by Fracastoro’s contempt for the French that was rife amongst sixteenth century Italians, but he then accuses the Spaniards of bringing the disease to the European continent in a metaphorical and poetical way. Clowes tells us that the disease appeared in 1494 and was ‘at that tyme termed by [these] Fre[n]ch men, Morbus Neapolitanus. But they of Naples called it, Morbus Gallicus, which name hath so in commen speeche remained with us until this day’ not pronouncing himself any further on the matter of origin, only stating, in passing, that in his opinion, the disease was never ‘more ryfe among the Indians, Neapolitans, or in Fraunce, or Spayne, then it is at this day in the realme of England’, thus taking the same uncompromising via as Hutten had done without the latter’s sympathetic approach. The most interesting description of this geosocial names for the pox, and the most aggressive, too, is that of Lowe’s, which is worth exploring in its entirety:
The most probable of all, is the opinion of the Spanish Historiographers, and also diuers other learned men that haue written of the same: vvhoe doe report, that it was brought among the Christians, after [the] natiuitie of our Lord, 1492, by a Spaniard called Christophorus Columbus, with many other Spaniards, accompanied with some women, who came from the new found Iles occidentalls. For this sicknes is as common, or rather rifer amongst them, then any other disease with vs, and doth infect, as contagious sicknesses doe among vs. So diuers Soldiers were infected, who after their returne, not onely infected their owne Country, but also diuers others. Anno 1493: in the Moneth of December, (as Nicolaus Leonitius reporteth, writing of thys disease) when K. Charles the viij of Fraunce besieged Naples with a puissant armie, where hee remained certaine Moneths, some of the Spanyards came to him, of the which Christophorus Columbus was chiefe, and spred this pernitious seed, and termed it the Indian sicknes, which, hath had his course since, not onely amongst the Spanyards, who call it the Italian sicknes, but also among the Italians, who call it the maladie of Naples, not without cause: for it began first to florish in Naples. Amongst the Frenchmen it is called the Spanish sicknesse, in England the great pockes, in Scotland the Spanish Fleas [...].
That Lowe was so harsh against the Spanish is not surprising, for it had only been eight years since Philip II’s attempt to invade England when Lowe’s work was published in 1596. The anti-Spanish xenophobia was at its peak. It would almost seem as though Lowe is suggesting that Columbus had planned the spread of the disease upon his arrival from the newly found lands. However, his intolerant assertions cannot be sustained. Spanish doctors had produced brilliant treatises on syphilis in the late fifteenth century and none of them made specific mention of the Spaniards as the original carriers of the disease. They never called the disease the Spanish Sickness, but gave it several names or just simply stuck to the name that had been previously ‘in commen speeche remained’, that is, the French Disease. We cannot be certain about Columbus’s real origins but what we can be certain of is that he would not have had any time to present himself in the Italian wars during his trips to the New World and he certainly never commanded any foot soldiers in the Italian conflict. But this does not mean that Lowe was consciously lying. The disease was being labelled as Spanish in England because, in 1596, the entente between the two countries was no longer extant and there was an overt war going on in several fronts between the two. At the same time, France was now an English ally – even if not a very reliable one – and in since 1588, in political and popular imagery, the Spanish were Catholic demons that would come to invade and sack England for the benefit of the pope. Lowe’s shift in describing the origins of the disease – so different from the more dispassionate accounts of Hutten, Fracastoro and Clowes – is direct proof of the change of tendency in intolerant behaviour against foreigners and other religions in late-sixteenth century England.
After this brief set of examples, it becomes obvious that the French Disease, as most diseases in the Early Modern period, triggered aggressive reactions of intolerance towards those afflicted and the nations suspected of being its origin. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, however, coinciding with an improvement of the remedies (still strongly based on mercury and guaiacum) and a sudden change of the disease into a milder form, the hysteria faded – although never entirely disappeared – and there was room for more tolerant reactions. In a way, the fact that military heroes or learned princes, such as Cesare Borgia or Emperor Rudolf II, also fell prey to syphilis, ‘glamourised’ the disease, prompting Guy de Maupassant many years later, when writing to a friend in 1877, to proudly boast: ‘I’ve got the pox! at last! the real thing! not the contemptible clap, not the ecclesiastical crystalline, not the bourgeois coxcombs or the leguminous cauliflowers – no – no, the great pox, the one which Francis I died of.’ Coming back to the comparison with the twentieth century’s own ‘scourge’, it could be argued that this gradual relaxation towards syphilis was a precedent for the milder reactions against HIV in the late 1990s, when legendary figures like Freddie Mercury or Isaac Asimov were known to have died of AIDS. But this was all too far away from Early Modern mentalities. There was, however, a certain level of empathy in sixteenth century society. As described above, the French Disease made no distinction between ages, sexes, social classes or races, and this vulnerability created a proto-sense of community; everybody could be exposed to it, with afflicted children producing a particularly sympathetic response. The anonymous Life of Fracastorius tells us that ‘he spent his time in curing the diseased, a divine Power seeming always to attend his endeavours, above the sordid desire of gain, and thought himself best rewarded in the health of his Patient.’ This kind of altruism was, perhaps, the greatest consequence of God’s punishment.
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