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By Madeline | February 22, 2008

What better to follow up my posting on brothels and prostitutes than an piece on syphilis?

One of the articles I read indicated that proof of syphilis was found dating all the way back to the 13th century in the tombs of monks whose mutilated bones indicated issues caused by congenital syphilis.  However, Syphilis’ first recorded details did not come about until around 1494 when the French were consumed by it while they attacked Naples.  It is rumored that the French caught it from the Spanish and before that there are numerous rumors and theories.  Once the documented cases were scribed, the disease seemed to break out fast.  Perhaps because of the amorous French?  It is no surprise that the disease was later dubbed throughout Europe as the French Disease.  Interestingly enough, the French referred to it as the Italian Disease despite their rumored contraction from the Spanish.  A few other names for it were lues, Cupid’s Disease and, most commonly known - the pox.  The present day name for the disease of syphilis actually stems from a poem written in 1530 about a man named Syphilus.  You can probably guess what the play was about…

Syphilis is only contracted through sexual contact.  Although, women who have syphilis can pass it to their children.  This type is called congenital syphilis and is transferred in utero, however the disease is no less merciful.  The first bouts of syphilis that the Europeans encountered were much more vicious than it was as time progressed.  Initial recordings of the disease refer to pustules covering the body, flesh falling from their faces (perhaps these were the “lepers”) and death occurred within a few months’ time. 

Some famous people throughout history who had syphilis, whether rumored or proven are as follows:  Lord Darnley - Mary Queen of Scots second husband who, while handsome, was abusive and a womanizer as is evidenced by his disease.  Henry VIII - this is one of the rumored cases.  Is it said this is what lead to his difficulty in producing a healthy male heir to the throne.  Edward VI - Henry VIII’s son who, though rumored sickly, was actually a healthy child who ended up dying from either syphilis or tuberculosis - either way is a bad way to go.  Martin Alonzo Pinzon who was the captain of the Pinta.  This last one did not come as a surprise as one of the original theories of the spread of syphilis to Europe was through Columbus’ crew who contracted it from the Americas.

Initially the disease began with a lesion that started on the spot where the disease was contracted - the sexual organ, anus or mouth.  The lesions were large and nonitchy, but looked very gross.  Kind of like an open canker on the skin.  As the disease progressed, the lesions spread throughout the body accompanied with a rash.  The disease dissolved the immune system leaving the body open to all kinds of infection and left many patients with constant fevers, sore throats and headaches.  Certain areas of the body could be directly attacked by the disease like the eyes which led to blindness or the spinal cord which led to partial paralysis and the brain which led to insanity. 

In the present day, syphilis is easily treated with penicillin.  However, given the regressing medical knowledge and application of the renaissance, the ‘cures’ for the pox were not only painful and ineffective, they were also extremely hard on the body and often times caused more problems.  Among the cures, the more popular were arsenic and mercury that were applied a number of ways that included: taking it orally, rubbing it on the affected area. 

Having read all this, I’m shocked that the prostitutes ever even got any business!!  Knowing all of this, I think a vow of chastity would be an easy one to keep!

Topics: Tudor Era |

2 Responses to “Syphilis”

  1. admin Says:
    February 24th, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    I loved the article! But you know me, so, from a science standpoint, Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum (a spirochete bacteria) while Leprosy (hence the term “leper”), also known as Hansen’s Disease, is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. So, they’re not exactly the same. Both are now extremely treatable with a high success rate using Penicillin, though Leprosy far outdates Syphilis, having its first reported case in about 300 B.C.!

  2. hdsaoirse Says:
    January 14th, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    John Wilmot, a.k.a. the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century poet who famously drank and debauched his way to an early grave, died of syphilis. There’s a memorable scene in the movie The Libertine in which Johnny Depp portrays him giving a passionate, eloquent speech to Parliament with a crude metal prosthetic nose strapped to his face (his having rotted away from the disease).

    Al Capone died of syphilis too. Went crazy with it.



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