Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

mercury preparation for syphilis

Depiction of mercury treatments for syphilis.

The “French Disease”

In 1494, France was at war with Naples when the French camp was struck by a terrible disease.
It began with genital sores, spread to a general rash, then caused abscesses and scabs all over the body. Boils as big as acorns, they said, that burst leaving rotting flesh and a disgusting odour. Sufferers also had fever, headaches, sore throats, and painful joints and bones. The disease was disabling, ugly, and terrifying. And people noticed almost from the first that it (usually) started on the genitals, and appeared to be spread by sexual congress.

The Italian kingdoms joined forces and threw out the French, who took the disease home with them, and from there it spread to plague the world until this day.

Where did it come from?

Syphilis. The French Disease. The Pox. The Great Imitator (because it looks like many other illnesses and is hard to diagnose). The French call it the Neopolitan Disease. It is caused by a bacterium that is closely related to the tropical diseases yaws and bejel.

Scientists theorise that somewhere in the late 15th Century, perhaps right there in the French camp outside of Naples, a few slightly daring yaws bacteria found the conditions just right to change their method of transmission. No longer merely skin-to-skin contact, but a very specific type of contact: from sores to mucus membranes in the genitals, anus, or mouth.

They’ve found a couple of possible sources.

One was the pre-Columbian New World, where yaws was widespread. Did one of Columbus’s sailors carry it back? It would have had to have been the first or second voyage to be outside of Naples in 1494.

The other is zoonotic. Six out of every ten human infectious diseases started in animals. Was syphilis one of them? Monkeys in Africa suffer from closely related diseases, at least one of which is sexually transmitted.

Gerard de Lairesse

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. Rembrandt, 1665. Gerard de Lairesse was an artist who suffered from congenital syphilis.

Mild is a relative term

At first, syphilis killed sufferers within a few months, but killing the host immediately is a bad strategy when you’re a bacterium. Especially when you’re a frail little bacterium that can’t live outside of warm, moist mucus membranes.

So, syphilis adapted. Soon, few people died immediately. The first sore (or chancre) appears between ten days to three months after contact. About ten weeks after it heals, the rash appears, and the other symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms last for several weeks and tend to disappear without treatment, but reoccur several times over the next two years.

For more than half of sufferers, that’s it. The disease has run its course. But it is a sneaky little thing. It is still lurking, and a third or more of those who contract the disease will develop late complications up to thirty years after the original chancre. These are the ones to fear. During the latent phase, the disease is cheerfully eating away at the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body.

The sufferer can look forward to years, even decades, of mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, or heart disease, and eventually the blessed relief of death.

How was it treated?

Until the invention of antibiotics, the treatment was as bad as the cure. Physicians and apothecaries prescribed mercury in ointments, steam baths, pills, and other forms. Mercury is a poison, and can
cause hair loss, ulcers, nerve damage, madness, and death. (see image above)

Syphilis was the impetus for the adoption of condoms, their birth control effect noticed later and little regarded (since conception was a woman’s problem). The first clear description is of linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. Animal intestines and bladder, and fine leather condoms also appear in the literature.

They were sold in pubs, apothecaries, open-air markets, and at the theatre, and undoubtedly every wise prostitute kept a stock.

Not having sex—or at least not having sex with multiple partners—would have been a more effective solution, but it appears few of society’s finest took notice of that!

Syphilis in romantic fiction

Those of us who write rakes would do well to remember how easy it was to catch the pox. Indeed, in some circles it was a rite of passage!

“I’ve got the pox!” crowed the novelist de Maupassant in his 20s. “At last! The real thing!” He did his part as a carrier by having sex with six prostitutes in quick succession while friends watched on. (Perrottet)

The mind boggles.

We can, I am sure, have fun with the symptoms and the treatment, though we’d do well to remember that it was not an immediate death sentence, and suicide might be considered an overreaction to the first active stage, when most people got better and were never troubled again.

Scattered across a few of the books I’m writing, I have my own syphilitic character in the final stage, suffering from slow deterioration of his mental facilities and occasional bouts of madness, though his condition is a secret from all but his wife, his doctor, and his heir.

Watch this space!

Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes with the sense to appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe.

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References

Cohen, Ann and Perlin, David. Syphilis: A Sexual Scourge with a Long History. Infoplease.

Harper, Kristen, Zuckerman, Molly, and Armelagos, George. Syphilis: Then and Now. The Scientist. 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Syphilis. 

Mroczkowski, Tomasz F. History, Sex and Syphilis: Famous Syphilitics and Their Private Lives.

Perrottet, Tony. When Syphilis Was Tres Chic. The Smart Set. 

Diabolical Filthiness vs. Divine Castration: Medieval Witchcraft and the Malleus Maleficarum

Witches are trouble. According to the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a medieval treatise on the identification and punishment of witches, they may hurt you, your livestock, or property, offer aid to the saucy ex-girlfriend you ditched for your straight-laced wife, or eat your unbaptized children in a tasty soup. The enemy is everywhere and capable everything from the fantastic (controlling the weather) to the mundane (imagining themselves in other places).

First published in 1487 by monks of the Dominican Order, Henreich Kramer and Jacob Springer, The Malleus Maleficarum was written to prove the existence of witches and to advise magistrates on how to convict them. By 1669, thirty-six editions had been published, significantly contributing to the witch craze that saw an estimated 60,000 people executed across Europe. Though the content is presented as fact, there were some who did not take the guidelines at face value including, interestingly enough, members of the Spanish Inquisition.*

marginalia, Roman de la Rose

Filling up bags of dicks from the dick tree. As you do. Marginalia from Roman de la Rose.

Given that so many people were incarcerated, tortured, or killed for the crime of witchcraft, one would think people in fifteenth century Germany flew around on brooms with baskets of body parts (or trees full of them, see left). Not so! The Malleus Maleficarum assures us that actual proof was not necessary and should not even be sought:

“We pray God that the reader will not look for proofs in every case, since it is enough to adduce examples that have been personally seen or heard, or are accepted at the word of credible witnesses.”

That’s right, all you need for your life to be thoroughly ruined is to piss off a neighbor who can accuse you of bewitching them or otherwise causing you harm. Unfortunately, little advice is given for those who have been wrongly accused. It does encourage you to be on the lookout for witches, however, as no one is safe from their terrible powers:

“It is asked whether a man can be so blessed by the good Angels that he cannot be bewitched by witches in any of the ways that follow. And it seems that he cannot, for it has already been proved that even the blameless and innocent and the just are often afflicted by devils, as was Job; and many innocent children, as well as countless other just men, are seen to be bewitched, although not to the same extent as sinners; for they are not afflicted in the perdition of their souls, but only in their worldly good and their bodies.”

Fear not, there are a few people who are impervious to bewitchment: those who prosecute them in any public official capacity, those who use sacred objects from the Church to protect themselves, and people who are otherwise blessed by Holy Angels.

Why are Inquisitors safe?

When taken by officials of public justice, witches immediately lose all of their powers. Proof of this comes from an anecdote about a Judge named Peter, who oversaw the arrest of “most notorious warlock” Stadelein, an unfortunate man from Boltingen in Lausanne. According to the authors, Peter assured his officials they could not be hurt by Stadelein: “You may safely arrest the wretch, for when he is touched by the hand of public justice, he will lost all the power of his iniquity.” As Peter promised, Stadelein was burned at the stake without any supernatural interference.

Although this is the only example given of the inability of witches to defend themselves against the authorities, the Malleus Maleficarum assures us it was not the only occurrence:

“Many more such experiences have happened to us Inquisitors in the exercise of our inquisitorial office, which would turn the mind of the reader to wonder if it were expedient to relate them. But since self-praise is sordid and mean, it is better to pass them over in silence than to incur the stigma of boastfulness and conceit.”

When magistrates in the town of Ratisbon were asked why Inquisitors were safe from witchcraft, they said “they did not know, unless it was because the devils had warned them against doing so.” We can only assume they were also on his payroll.

Lord knows one shouldn’t brag about how many defenseless people they detained. So what if I’m not an Inquisitor?

If you’re not an inquisitor or working on behalf of one, fear not! Holy Water, Blessed Candles, Blessed Salt, and consecrated herbs can also be employed to protect yourself and your livestock from witches. While you’re stocking up at the Church, be sure to have your children baptized, because witches may try to eat them if you don’t. You can also protect yourself by crossing yourself, writing the triumphal name of Our Saviour in four places in the form of a cross**, or regularly attending Mass:

“There were also three companions walking along a road, and two of them were struck by lightning. The third was terrified, when he heard voices speaking in the air, “Let us strike him, too.” But another voice answered, “We cannot, for to-day he had heard the words ‘The Word was made Flesh.’” And he understood that he had been saved because he had that day heard Mass.”

Go to Church, kids.

How does one become blessed by an angel?

Bust_of_an_Angel-Filippino_Lippi_mg_9962

“You want me to do what?” Bust of an Angel, Filippino Lippi, 1495.

You will not be protected by a common blessing from just any old angel. While some angels may protect against witchcraft specifically, many do this by blessing “just and holy men … in the matter of the genital instincts.”

That is exactly what it sounds like, and before you get your hopes up thinking this is going somewhere sexy, it’s really not. A few examples are given of holy men who, after devoting themselves to lives of chastity, were granted the complete removal of sexual desire, which manifests itself in oddly surgical dreams.

According to the monk John Cassian, the Abbott S. Serenus was delivered from his earthly desires when “an Angel of the Lord came to him in a vision in the night, and seemed to open his belly and take from his entrails a burning tumour of flesh, and then to replace all of his intestines as they had been; and said: “Lo! The provocation of your flesh is cut out, and know that this day you have obtained perpetual purity of your body … so that you will never again be pricked with that natural desire…”

Erm, what if I like my provocation of my flesh where it is?

You can also be castrated by angels. In your dreams, of course. Heraclides tells of a monk named Helias who abandoned a monastery full of women (virgins, we are assured) when the temptation became too great. According to Heraclides, Helias was visited by angels in a dream to enable him to return to his work with the women: “One seemed to hold his hands, another his feet, and the third to cut out his testicles with a knife … when they asked if he felt himself remedied, he answered that he was entirely delivered.”

If you don’t enjoy prosecuting your neighbors, can’t regularly get to church (or belong to another religion), and don’t like the sound of divine castration, you might consider becoming a witch.

The Malleus Maleficarum warns us that all witches are evil regardless of what they use their powers for and they must be punished accordingly, but a lot of their abilities sounds useful for dealing with superstitious peasants or entertaining oneself when trapped in 15th century Germany.

There were three types of witches: Witches who caused harm but could not heal, witches who could heal but could not cause harm (we call them doctors now), and witches who could do both. Of those who harm, the most powerful are those who eat children. No matter how they used their powers, they always had congress with the devil as an Incubus who, rather helpfully, usually took the form of some random guy.

One woman who was later burned as a witch detailed her first encounter with an Incubus:

“When the Incubus devil had seen her, and had asked her whether she recognized him, and she had said that she did not, he had answered: “I am the devil; and if you wish, I will always be ready at your pleasure, and I will not fail you in any necessity.” And when she had consented, she continued for eighteen years, up to the end of her life, to practice diabolical filthiness with him…”

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

“Anything but diabolical filthiness!” On the Punishment of Witches. Olaus Magnus, 1555.

Okay, so eating children is obviously out, but if diabolical filthiness sounds a little more appealing than divine castration, the Malleus Maleficarum tells us witches can also do the following:

  • Inflame the lusts of certain wicked
    TheWitch-no1

    The Witch No. 1. Joseph E. Baker, 1892. Lithograph depicting Salem Witch Trials.

    men toward some women, while making them cold to others

  • Raise hurtful tempests and lightnings
  • Cause sterility in men and animals
  • Throw into the water children walking by the water side
  • Make horses go mad under their riders
  • Transport themselves from place to place through the air, either in body or imagination
  • Affect Judges and Magistrates so that they cannot hurt them (which directly contradicts what they said in the previous chapter)
  • Cause themselves and others to keep silent under torture
  • Bring about a great trembling in the hands and horror in the minds of those who would arrest them
  • Show to others occult things and certain future events, by the information of devils, though this may sometimes have a natural cause
  • See absent things as if they were present
  • Turn the minds of men to inordinate love or hatred
  • Strike whom they will with lightning
  • Make of no effect the generative desires, and even the power of copulation
  • Kill infants in the mother’s womb by a mere exterior touch
  • Bewitch men and animals with a mere look, without touching them, and cause death
  • Cause plagues

Witches can be male or female, and their power comes as a direct result of their copulation with the devil, however we should note that God “gently directs the witchcraft of devils, so that when they try to diminish and weaken the Faith, they on the contrary strengthen it and make it more firmly rooted in the hearts of many.”

So God is also with those accused while the devil protects the Inquisitors?

That sounds about right.

Jessica Cale

*If the Spanish Inquisition thinks you’re nutty, that might be a bad sign.
**Iesus + Nazarenus + Rex + Iudaeorum + , in case you were wondering)

Source
The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Translated with an Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes by the Reverend Montague Summers. Dover Publications, New York. 1971

Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and The Sickness of Naples

Syphilis. Woodcut series, 1496. The Virgin Mary
and Christ child bless the afflicted.

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been looking forward to this post. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very interested in sex and contraception in history, so the history of venereal diseases is kind of where I live. Syphilis is my favorite. 

Okay, so if you were on the fence, now you’ve probably decided that I’m completely mental. How can someone have a favorite venereal disease? Stick with me here! Syphilis helped to shape the modern world through the measures taken to prevent it (such as the development condoms), and the effects it had on the mental health of influential people, both good and bad. No other venereal disease, as far as I’m aware, has ever been accused (with some justification) of creating genius

So let’s take a look. 

History

The first known case of syphilis was documented by Dr. Pintor in 1493 in Rome. He called it the Morbus Gallicus (The French Disease), and assumed that it had been carried to Italy by the French Army. When the French began to notice it, they called it mal de Naples (the sickness of Naples). Emperor Maximilian officially referred to it as malum franciscum in 1495, (1,3) but soon it was known by an altogether simpler name: 

The Pox. 

It was called this because of the noticeable effects the disease had on the skin of the afflicted, leaving lesions and decaying soft tissues that were sometimes mistaken for leprosy. The name syphilis comes from a Greek legend about a peasant Apollo had punished with poor health and lesions all over his body: the peasant’s name was Syphilus, and he could only be cured (rather chillingly) by Mercury. (1)

Syphilis. Durer, 1496.

The Disease

The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores during the second. The afflicted would experience pain with erection, swelling of the lymph glands, splitting headaches, and other pains throughout the body. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. (3) Lesions and tumors could consume the nasal bones and the tissues of the face until the flesh was literally falling from the bones, sometimes even leaving the brain exposed to open air. (1,3)

If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If one was lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, they could look forward to madness and paralysis. 

It was seen as primarily a male problem, but no one was safe from it. It was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. (2) Often asymptomatic, it could go unnoticed for years, and could be passed on without any sexual contact at all; from parents to children, and from wet nurses to infants. It could even be transmitted through kissing or sharing cups. (1)

It was incredibly contagious and impossible to cure, and some historians estimate that as many as a fifth of the population may have been infected at any one time. (1)

Treatment

Syphilis was treated at the second stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pills to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was somewhat successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. Less common treatments included confining the afflicted to a sweat room to breathe guaiac vapor, “excising the sores and cauterizing the wounds,” and celibacy aided by the placement of nettles in one’s codpiece. (1)

Syphilis. Woodcut Series, 1496.


Where did it come from?

It is generally believed that Columbus had brought the disease back with him from the Americas. It existed in the Americas before Columbus arrived, and the timing certainly was convenient. Some Renaissance thinkers suspected it had something to do with astrology (see right and above left), while others thought it was derived from leprosy. Francis Bacon believed that it was a result of cannibalism. (1)

Outbursts of Genius and Madness

The tertiary stage of syphilis is well known to cause mental issues including creative genius and paranoid madness. Many of history’s greatest personalities had the disease, such as Cesare Borgia, Casanova, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Beau Brummell, but so did larger-than-life figures such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible, and maybe even Hitler. The jury’s out on how much influence the disease has on the creative process, but the manic bursts of divine inspiration it is known to have caused certainly must have had some effect on Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Keats, Manet, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and possibly Oscar Wilde. (2)

Was syphilis at least partially responsible for some of history’s greatest works of art? Maybe. Whichever side we choose in that particular debate, we can at least appreciate the prevalence of syphilis led to the development and popularization of condoms, and that’s no small achievement. 

Syphilis is actually a subject that comes up a couple of times in The Southwark Saga. Sally’s (fictional) friend, Bettie, has it in Tyburn, and so does his crush, the very non-fictional Earl of Rochester. In Virtue’s Lady, Lord Lewes, Jane’s betrothed, has it, and has buried multiple wives and children because of it. No wonder she wants to run away! It’s by no means a huge part of either book, but with one in five people in London being afflicted by it at any one point in time, it would be weird not to mention it.

For a really fantastic article on this subject, be sure to read Sarah Dunant’s piece, Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world in the Guardian. 

You can also read Gabriello Fallopio’s 1564 treatise against syphilis, De Morbo Gallico (translation: About the French disease) online here.

Sources

1. Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London. 
2. Deborah Hayden, The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
3. Liza Picard, Restoration London.

Cantarella: Potent Renaissance Poison Made from Insects

As you now know (and probably could have guessed), I’m a big fan of the Borgias. What’s not to like? Every other week, it seemed like somebody was poisoning someone else with something called cantarella. Because I become fixated on odd little details, I had to know what it was, and now it’s part of my database of poisons (yes, I have one of those. You don’t?). 

So what was it?

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly. 

Poisoning your enemies with bugs.
Because f*** you, that’s why.


Although it was rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely associated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little added toxicity

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, the powder engorges the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, it raises blisters, causes inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. So the next time you’re watching the Borgias (or re-watching, in slow-motion, as Cesare smolders through three seasons of political intrigue), pay attention to the poison, because the symptoms are all there. Nicely done, Neil Jordan. Nicely done. 

The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

Here she is holding a dagger.
Battista Dossi, 1486

The Borgias were a prominent family in Renaissance Italy who are remembered in infamy to this day. Although they produced two popes (Callixtus III and Alexander VI) and contributed to the Renaissance as major patrons of the arts, they are remembered for the crimes there were accused of committing, including but not limited to: adultery, incest, murder, bribery, simony, theft, and poisoning. The lives of the family of Pope Alexander VI were so sensational, in fact, that Showtime made a series about them (If you enjoy good looking men in leather trousers running about garroting people, it’s on Netflix).

Pope Alexander VI’s daughter, Lucrezia (1480 – 1519), was a renowned beauty and may have been the subject of many great works of art, although she only has one confirmed portrait. She was described as having “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees; a beautiful complexion; hazel eyes which changed color; a full, high bosom; and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air.’” 

She was blonde, but she was Spanish by descent and the rest of her family was dark, so how did the most famous femme fatale of the Renaissance lighten her hair before there was Clairol?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, detail


It’s generally believed that this color was achieved by rinsing it in a mixture of lye and lemon juice before exposing it to sunlight. The longer it was exposed, the lighter it would become. This process would take a long time for anyone, but imagine how much longer it would take if your hair fell past your knees. To give you some idea, there is an account that on one occasion, Lucrezia postponed a journey for days just to wash her hair. (1) 

Days. 

She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. Bleaching recipes were common in medieval cosmetic texts, and most of them include using lye or ashes in a rinse. There must have been something to it, because the practice of lightening hair with lemon juice has remained popular to this day. Elle Magazine even has a helpful guide to lightening your hair with lemon juice and sunlight a la Lucrezia Borgia, only they’ve replaced the lye with chamomile tea for a less caustic rinse. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of your smokin’ hot foremothers or you’re just curious, you can read their recipe here

A lock of Lucrezia’s famous blonde hair is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan to this day.

(1) Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty. Sutton Publishing, 2005.