Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Thoughts on A Cultural History of Syphilis

Portrait of Gentleman, aka Cesare Borgia.

Portrait of Gentleman, aka Cesare Borgia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1490s an apparently new and terrifying disease spread through Italy in the wake of the invading French army. The disease had been contracted by the soldiers sleeping with prostitutes and camp followers who had earlier slept with mercenaries who probably brought the disease back with them from their voyages of discovery with Columbus.

The new disease was dreadful in its ravages: pustules (the pocks from which the disease got its name) spread across the genitals and the faces of its victims accompanied by unbearable gastrointestinal pain and fevers, excruciating headaches,  the sinews were loosened and the bones  gnawed away.

Syphilis held up a mirror to civilisation striking writers, musicians and painters. It influenced fashion, wigs and patches were used to cover up the marks of the pox. Indeed for a time in the sixteenth century, it was almost an occupational hazard for Renaissance princes, a badge of courage. a source of pride for later writers like Baudelaire and de Maupassant. The modern name for the disease of ‘syphilis’ comes from a poem by the physician Girolamo Fracastoro in which the shepherd Syphilis is a sufferer as punishment for his sins.

Yet, its initial impact was one of fear and the hysterical search for scapegoats on whom it could be blamed. Inevitably women were blamed for spreading it – there was no idea that men could be guilty and indeed women were thought to suffer less from it than men. Public bathhouses were closed down as a source of moral and physical contagion. It is all very similar to the reaction to the appearance of AIDS and HIV in the 1980s.

pox coverIn the sixteenth century, there were two types of treatment according to religious allegiance, the Catholic one of guiacum, treatment based on the wood from which it was believed that the true cross had been made, being unacceptable to protestants because its import into Europe was the monopoly of the Fuggers  of Augsburg who supported the Emperor Charles Vin his bid for the Holy Roman Empire. Protestants preferred treatment with mercury. It became a truism that a night with Venus led to a lifetime of Mercury. When a new treatment, salvarsan, Paul Ehrlich’s magic bullet, was found in 1909 it was based on an arsenical compound.

Only with the discovery of penicillin did there at last seem to be a way of checking the disease. Ironically, it has made people more blasé about syphilis. Alexander Fleming would have been bemused at the idea that his discovery led to the modern promiscuous age and the permissive society.

In ‘A Cultural History of Syphilis’, Radio 3, Sunday 26 May 2013, 19:45:  “the writer Sarah Dunant examines the impact “The Great Pox” made in the arts and the wider world in key European cities Florence, Ferrara, Paris and finally central London, where a chance discovery by Alexander Fleming ended half a millennium of suffering.With contributions from Dr. Jonathan Sawday, author of The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture; Dr. Kevin Siena, author of Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe; Kevin Brown, author of The Pox: The Life and Near Death of a Very Social Disease and curator of the Fleming Museum in London, and cultural historian Dr. Jann Matlock, senior lecturer in French at University College London.”

Sarah’s interest in the subject began when she was researching in to how the handsome, charismatic Cesare Borgia turned into a masked, sinister figure after catching the pox for her latest novel Blood and Beauty. I was one of the people interviewed and appear in the programme. Of course there is so much more to be said.

I should perhaps leave the last word to a reviewer of my own book The Pox: the Life and Near Death of a Very Social Disease: ‘Casual sex will never feel the same again’.


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