Imagine a world with witches, dragons, evil spirits, miasma, saintly visits and miracles, sea serpents, astrology, changelings and giants, a land where every earth bound animal had a like counterpart in the sea and pigs, along with other livestock, were put on trial and executed. Here the appearance of a previously unknown and rapidly spreading lethal pox caused a panic likened to that of the black plague. Different type’s of syphilis presented in different ways at different stages that could affect the nose, skin, heart, bone or brain so it would have been very hard to identify as it began to wreak havoc across Europe.
This new human pandemic was much more lethal than the strain we know today, and had no name or history so the shaken populations of the Old World had to invent one. Driven by geographical xenophobia the new malady and its origins were always attributed to some other social, topographical or ethnic group. If you were Persian you called it the Turkish evil, if you were Turkish it was the Christian evil while the Italians called it the French disease and the Japanese and Asian Indians referred to it as the Portuguese sickness. It was also known as the Spanish, Neapolitan, Gallic, Polish, British, or Chinese pox and was even called Persian fire yet syphilis was never labeled the American, Hispaniola or New World disease. This new STD, thought to have been spread by many mercenaries from many countries, was also tethered to more then 50 catholic saints who would hopefully intervene to assuage the pain or perhaps cure the suffering penitent. Syphilis became known as Saint Mevenno disease, Saint Minus disease, Saint Mento disease, Sand Monus or Monnus disease, and Saint Maino or Maiano disease and some of its declared intercessors included (St.) Lazarus, Geroge, Rocco, Denis, Sernin, Job, Symphorian, and Fiacrio along with the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary offering protection from Syphilis
Saturn and Jupiter whose conjuncture caused Syphilis
- U. Hutten [c 1519] a syphilis victim himself said the disease came from god as a punishment for the sins of carnal contact and according to astrologers was caused by an alignment stars and would last only seven years. Many physicians suspected that miasma was the disease’s origin some even embraced the novel new theory of person to person sexual contagion as a vector.
- B. Casa [c 1568] published almost 50 years later spoke with authority that the disease came from Hispaniola and was a STD. He probably obtained his information from the new wealth of available books. Between 1453 and 1501 some 35,000 titles comprising 8 million volumes are thought to have been printed and which was more than all the books produced from 330 till Gutenberg.
The new pandemic had remarkable impacts on European religion and sexual mores fostering numerous reformative social corollaries. William Crowes published the first printed English account of the disease in 1579 in which he called sufferers “vile creatures” and “lewd wicked beasts’’. The laces of Protestantism and rigorous Catholic doctrine shaped the Neo-Puritanism of the period that proscribed casual sex. Those cavalier enough to contract the diseases were shunned much the way AIDS patients were treated in the late twentieth century. The noble families of Europe, many of whom were known for and proud of their reproductive feats, now saw casual sex through a different lens and inbreeding may have become more acceptable in a post syphilitic world. Prostitutes, who had previously been accepted as a social meme, were now the new demon scapegoats and hospitals turned their infected patients out on the street or put them into leper like isolation. And now the average ignoble women, in fear of contracting the pestilence, would shrink in horror flee before the male nobility who had long been known for their randy reputations and use of droit du seigneur.
Sufferers and practitioners of the day looked to the Americas for a cure assuming that since the pox came from the New World there had to be a cure for it there. Two expeditions to New England were launched by Bartholomew Gosnold and Martin Pringin in 1602 and 1603 to find a supposed remedy that we know today as sassafras, a Choctaw Indian herb still used in preparing Gumbo a culinary favorite of the American South. Another reputed cure was the oil from a tree know as Guaiacum [lignum vitae] growing in Central America but alas neither had any true effect or curative properties against the new pox, and even in 2001, according to the WHO, Syphilis was the tenth largest cause of infectious deaths globally with 167,000 estimated fatalities.
The “cure” and global trade
Guayacan, sassafras, China smilax, Japan imported 84 tons in 1648, and other sweating therapies were the first globally traded commodities superseding both coffee and sugar and were prescient examples of the global drug trade we know today. To paraphrase Roland Robertson both the disease and it supposed cures compressed the globe and intensified the concept of one earth into a cultural meme based on the cloud of fear and commonality that accompanied the pox.
Every infected kingdom of the old world [meaning the whole world not just Europe] had its own Syphilitic nomenclature and ergo its own lexicon for the supposed palliative or cure and there was an interesting and ambivalent dichotomy that pitted Protestant sassafras against Catholic guayacan as a remedy. England, France, Spain, Martinique, Germany, Italy, Holland and Portugal, as well many other Euro-Asian countries, had their own terms for the resin of guayacan hardwood, whose nomenclature was rooted is the Taino Indian word guayaco. This extreme durable wood was and still is used by ancestors of the Taino’s in Central American for carvings and some years after its discovery was being used for old world cogs, gears and pulleys to outfit and build European ships and factories and quite interestingly was the favored wood for the truncheons of British Bobbies well into the 20th century.
Syphilis came to France, Germany and Switzerland by 1459, Britain by 1498 and by 1500 India, Russia, Poland, Greece, Hungary and the Scandinavia states had reported epidemics with Africa incurring theirs around 1520. China was infected by the middle of the 16th century as the pox spread towards Japan where by the 18th century estimates of that infection comprised half the population. European mortality has been estimated between 5 to 10 million with perhaps 20% of the population being affected at the pox’s apogee.
Note the caravel sails on the ships and ruffled collars that were stiffened with New World Cassava!
Guiacum and the other surfactants cures of the period stimulated global exchange by more then just trade. The translation of new medical texts on the subject and disseminating the new theory of contagion, that was now supplanting the earlier Galenic/Hippocratic diagnosis paradigm, helping to compress the globe through common knowledge. The exploration for, cultivation of, and trade in drugs that allegedly cured the pox were the first forces to stimulate global exchange and heralded an inundation of printed treatises and newly translated medical literature in the vernacular of each country. These new printed books addressed the causes and treatments of the disease along with numerous narrative metaphorical fictions about the moral judgments of contracting the pestilence. New larger ships, revised navigational charts, drug compounding labs and courtly fashion all advanced to compress the globe and extend commercial and cultural exchange amongst nations that had often been at odds before the pox. Ship loads for the new “magic bullet” brought wealth to importers and newly formed trading groups and spurred exploration for the product and the means for importing and selling it to the far corners of the then known planet.
Syphilis, which raged until the discovery of penicillin, was one of the worst pandemics known to man, second only to the “plagues”, and it spawned one of the more curious fashion treads that lasted for centuries. Powder wigs hid hair loss and open sores and rashes that were signs of the disease. These “bigwigs” morphed into a fashion statement when several sovereigns contacted the condition and started wearing these expensive scented, to hide the smell of corruption, cosmetic perukes. Also helped with fleas …
Syphilis came to France, Germany and Switzerland by 1459, Britain by 1498 and by 1500 India, Russia, Poland, Greece, Hungary and the Scandinavia states had reported epidemics with Africa incurring theirs around 1520. China was infected by the middle of the 16th century as the pox spread towards Japan where by the 18th century estimates claim that half the population was syphilitic. European mortality has been estimated between 5 to 10 million with perhaps 20% of the globes population being affected at the pox’s apogee.
Our post modern thoughts rarely turn to syphilis and it’s hard to realize the impact this STD had on the world. Many social theorists think that penicillin, not the birth control pill of the 60’s, heralded the beginning of the “sexual revolution”. In any case one more fashion statement can be attributed to the spread of the disease. Men had been wearing hosiery, think tights with out a crotch, since the 1300’s leaving men’s genitals exposed when sitting and when mounting a horse. An outraged public prompted the invention of the codpiece which at first was just a utilitarian pocket or flap like a g string for men. But when the fashionista of the day [read aristocracy] contracted syphilis these pieces of apparel became ornate and larger so they could conceal medicated bandages and aromatics to conceal the ravages of the disease.
Art soon focused on representing the ravages and morality of the pox by such artists as Wit Stoss, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Duerer, Sebastian Brandt, and William Hogarth to cite just a few and this paper isn’t deep enough to list the celebrities and artists from the epoch that were thought to be syphilitic. Artist and writers from around the globe put their creative forces into a written and visual corpus, representing the pox and its hypothetical cures, that bound the world’s communities in a new orientation where distance and isolation were dramatically reduced by the malaise of syphilis and the quest for a cure.
In conclusion … “SOMETIME during the last decade of the sixteenth century (the exact date is uncertain) a Set of twenty beautifully engraved plates, entitled Nova Reperta (New Discoveries) illustrating of the most important discoveries and inventions of the Middle Ages, was executed at Antwerp By Philipp Galle from designs painted or sketched by Joannes Stradanus.” … “Guaiacum Wood as a remedy for syphilis” was listed along with America, printing, clocks, gunpowder, the compass, distillation and 13 others which sums up the importance of “the cure” in compressed global terms.
To the left is an image of a syphilitic rhinoplasty … Just as seen on Showtime’s “The Knick”
Here’s a Great map of the probable GLOBAL exposure areas of the pox in the 16th century … Remember we did not have the science of phylogentics in the sixties but this illustration can certainly help us visual the global spread of both the pox and a cure.
Based on the following Internet sources