“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

london_bridge_1616_by_claes_van_visscher

London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

lancelotfan

The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

seduction

“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

Women and Whiskey are Plentiful Here: Occupied Nashville’s Soiled Doves

NashvilleNashville, Tennessee was the largest city on the Western Front during the Civil War. With over 100,000 troops passing through the city from its occupation in 1862 until the end of the war in 1865, there was a real problem with idle troops and prostitutes.

The state of Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy on June 24, 1861. Following a vote by the people, Governor Isham G. Harris proclaimed “All connections by the State of Tennessee with the Federal Union dissolved…Tennessee is a free, independent government.” Nashville became a target of the Union forces due to the city’s importance as a port on the Cumberland River. Its importance as the capital of Tennessee made it a desirable prize. When it became the first Confederate state capital to fall to Union troops, the city was evacuated and Governor Harris issued a call for the legislature to assemble in Memphis.

Text from the March 8, 1862 Harper’s Weekly edition stated:

The commerce of Nashville is very large, being carried on by river and railroads, and by turnpike roads…The average annual shipments are—30,000 bales of cotton, 6000 hogsheads of tobacco, 2,000,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000,000 bushels of Indian corn, and 10,000 casks of bacon. The leading business of the city is in dry goods, hardware, drugs, and groceries. Book publishing is carried on more extensively than in any other Western town, and the publishing house of the Southern Methodist Conference is one of the largest book manufactories in the United States. The value of the taxable property here is $15,000,000.

What exactly does this mean and how did Nashville become so sexy? First, let’s look into a little history of Tennessee. Why was it the last state to leave the Union? It’s complicated. East Tennessee was very pro-Union, comprised of mainly small farmers due to the mountainous terrain. Middle Tennessee was much the same, although the farms were larger. Corn was king unlike cotton of the deep south. That corn made its way throughout the United States, with the British Empire being the biggest consumer of the crop. West Tennessee and Memphis had ties to the cotton of the deep south, however the city of Memphis mainly had allegiance to the banking industry in New York City. Farmers in the state were making a fortune and they didn’t want a war. But, eventually when the Union fired back on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the people of Tennessee felt that the U.S. government had overstepped its boundaries, and the state begrudgingly tossed in its lot with the Confederacy.

Nashville-Union Occupation

Still, Tennessee remained divided. The town of Shelbyville became known as “Little Boston” because it so vehemently decried the choice to leave the Union. Bedford County, the home of the controversial Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest sent as many troops to fight for the Confederacy as it did the Union. When Nashville was occupied by Union forces, there were many Union sympathizers living there, even though it was considered a Confederate capital.

In 1860, before the war began, Nashville had seen an era of economic prosperity. Annual commerce was over $25 million, which was remarkable for a population of slightly less than 20,000 residents, according to the 1860 census. Steamboats had cruised the Cumberland River, and four railroads converged on Nashville. With a major university, a medical school, and numerous academies, scholars from across the South were attracted to Nashville to pursue their education. Publishers called Nashville home and their products enhanced the culture and prestige of the city. There were eight Methodist Churches, three Presbyterian, along with many other denominations, including Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran. This cultural renaissance was complemented by the state capitol building, completed in 1855.

Closer to the river was a shadow district, known as Smokey Row, where an industry catered to the visitors brought into the city on business. This area by the docks thrived on nightlife. The 1860 census names 207 women whose occupation was listed as prostitute; 198 were white and nine were mulatto. Eighty-seven were illiterate; eight could read but not write. Twenty were widows and most were born in Tennessee. They were known as public women. They were called soiled doves, nymphs du pave (girls of the pavement), and frail but fair women. During the Civil War era terms for houses in the district were houses of ill fame, ill repute, bawdy houses, or parlor houses.

U.S. Major General William Rosecrans believed Nashville was an ideal location for his troops. The placement of the city on the rail lines and the Cumberland River made for excellent movement of men and artillery. It appeared to be the perfect spot on the Western Front to gather troops, teach maneuvers, and sharpen tactical abilities for the next round of fighting. Union troops settled into the city, and unexpected trade began to boom. The strong Yankee dollar took over the town. The next four years would see a very different Nashville.

Old_nashville_riverfront

General Rosecrans underestimated the allure of Smokey Row.

Abandoned women began arriving from the industrial cities of the northern states, then from the war ravaged rural areas of the southern states. By 1862, the number of working women in Nashville had increased substantially from the 207 in 1860. Keep in mind that the early Union troops were young volunteers between the ages of 18-22, most of them were away from home for the first time. They were eager to spend their small wages on the soiled doves in the bawdy houses.

By early 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were not only at war against the Confederate Army, they were at war with disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea infections spread through the Union troops. The infections were practically as lethal to soldiers as combat at that time. Almost 9 percent of Union troops would be infected with STDs before the end of the Civil War. The only known way to treat infection was with mercury. Considering that the battle injury rate was 18 percent, the severity of this plague was alarming, with deadly consequences for General Rosecrans’s command.

Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening had swept across the country in the mid-1850s. The result of this fervor, particularly in the North, saw women become involved in efforts including temperance, the abolition of slavery, and other reform movements. Due to the spread of STDs first in the military, then into the civilian populations, their cultured, Southern sisters were not far behind them. Demands were made to clean up the city.

Local physicians responded to the dilemma and a Dr. Coleman ran an advertisement in which he announced that he had opened a Dispensary for Private Diseases. Another physician, Dr. A. Richard Jones, opened a medical office offering the same service on Dederick Street.

Meanwhile, Capt. Ephraim Wilson described the first major attempt to control wartime prostitution: “During the winter of 1862-63, the Army had a social enemy to contend with which seriously threatened its very existence…the women of the town.”

Union officials decided on what they believed to be the easiest solution. Since they couldn’t stop soldiers from visiting local prostitutes, something had to be done to move the girls out of Nashville. The movement to legalize prostitution in Nashville began in June 1863, when Brigadier General R. S. Granger noted that officers and medical staff petitioned him to “save the army from venereal disease, a fate worse . . . than to perish on the battlefield.”

Capt. Wilson continued to document the situation, “Fifteen hundred of them at a single time were gathered up and placed aboard a train and were compelled to leave and conducted under guard to Louisville.” Louisville at first objected to receiving such a formidable array of unwelcome guests, but finally consented to do so, and Nashville was afterward all the happier and better off for their conspicuous absence.” But, the women had not agreed to this relocation plan and were soon back in Nashville.

At the same time, a frailer group of women were placed on board a steamship name the Idahoe. (Yes, you read the name correctly. Truth is always stranger than fiction.) Louisville refused to take them since they were sick, and due to concerns that there may be Confederate spies among them, and the steamer headed for Cincinnati. That city refused them as well. It should be noted that at both ports men swam the river and attempted to climb on board when they heard news that a steamship filled with women of easy virtue was approaching. Union troops shot at the men to keep them from climbing on board. The women, knowing that they had lost income at both ports, destroyed the interior of the steamer. The owner never recouped his losses and the ladies were returned to Nashville.

The problem became increasingly worse. The Union Army had overlooked a basic, strategic factor which no army should ignore – that of supply and demand.

Finally, in an attempt to regulate the spread of disease, a referendum was passed where prostitutes had to be examined, declared disease free, treated and given a license to practice their trade. The Union Army in Nashville established the United States’s first system of legalized prostitution.

License

The plan was simple. Each lady would register and receive a license for $5, which allowed her to freely practice her trade. An Army doctor examined the girls each week at an additional 50 cent fee, to ensure they remained disease free. Those who had caught a disease were sent to a hospital established specifically for them. Anyone found ‘working’ without a license, or those who didn’t appear for a weekly examination were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Once suspicious of the military laws because of the treatment they had received, Nashville’s soiled doves took to the new system with as much enthusiasm as those who established it. One doctor penned that they no longer had to turn to “quacks and charlatans” for ineffective treatments, and eagerly showed potential customers their licenses to prove that they were disease-free.

The war ended, the soldiers moved on, and the women went their way, too. Nashville became the Music City in the 20th Century and is a global publishing hub. As for the ladies, they probably did a great deal to boost morale, and the coffers of the city, especially as the war became longer and deadlier than anyone ever imagined. These women offered their talents, and we have to admire their courage, feel their suffering, and acknowledge their ability to survive during this tragic era in our nation’s history.

Deb Hunter writes fiction as Hunter S. Jones, publishing as an indie author, as well as through MadeGlobal Publishing. She is a member of the prestigious Society of Authors founded by Lord Tennyson, Society of Civil War Historians (US), Dangerous Women Project Global Writers Initiative (University of Edinburgh), Romance Writers of America (PAN member), Historical Writers’ Association, Historical Novel Society, English Historical Fiction Authors, Atlanta Writers Club, Atlanta Writers Conference, and Rivendell Writers Colony which is associated with The University of the South. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her Scottish born husband.

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Amazon

Sources
Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium of 1,036 True Stories. Thomas P. Lowry, Xlibris Press, 2006. (He notes the terms whore, whorehouse, and bordello were infrequently used terms during the Civil War era.)
The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Thomas P. Lowry. Stackpole Press, 1994.
Charles Smart, ed., The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Part III, vol. II, Medical Volume. District of Columbia, 1888.
U.S. Census Bureau (1860). Tennessee State Government Archives, History. Retrieved from http://Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL).
“A Strange Cargo,” Cleveland Morning Leader, July 21, 1863.
“Harper’s Weekly,” March 8, 1862.
“The Curious Case of Nashville’s Frail Sisterhood.” Angela Serratore, Smithsonian Magazine, 2013.
“City’s Civil War ‘Secret’ Revealed,” George Zepp, The Tennessean, 2003.
Photograph of the Nashville Wharf, taken by Calvert Brothers, shortly after the Civil War. From the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Nashville under Union occupation, c. 1863. Library of Congress.
Nashville prostitution license, 1863. National Archives.
All photographs are public domain or owned by the author.

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. 

Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London

 

In my book Tyburn, the heroine, Sally, is convinced that Death is following her, and the more you read about life in Restoration London, the more you realize that she is probably right.

Seventeenth-century London was an incredibly dangerous place, and causes of death were mostly mysterious. In his Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, John Graunt offers some of the following explanations: traffic, sciatica, swine-pox, wen, lethargy, fear, sadness, itch, and rather worryingly, “mother.”

If the people living in Restoration London were lucky enough to survive childhood, they could be killed by several afflictions that no longer trouble us today. Apart from the most serious culprits like Tuberculosis and plague, people could die from as little as falling down in the uneven, filthy streets. Do you think you could survive Restoration London? Here’s what you’re up against:

95524-pestarztPlague: Which one? Both the pneumonic and the bubonic plagues claimed lives throughout the period. Infection would begin with a flea bite, and from there either spread to the lungs (pneumonic) or the lymph nodes (bubonic). The pneumonic plague resulted in death within three days. The bubonic plague could had a survival rate of about 30%, but still managed to kill an estimated 100,000 people in London alone between 1665-66.

Falling into a Plague Pit: In Journal of a Plague Year, Defoe describes an occurrence of a cart, driver, and horses crash into a plague pit where it was completely swallowed by the corpses and never recovered. There were so many of these pits and they were so large that this happened frequently. There’s a massive plague pit underneath Hyde Park that has affected the path of the Underground, and other pits are still being discovered.

84a31-dc3bcrersyphilis1496Syphilis (The Great Pox, the French Pox): Syphilis was probably brought to Europe by Columbus and had reached Naples by 1494 (thanks, jerk). It was seen as primarily a male problem, and was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores. Syphilis was treated at this stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pill to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was someone successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. 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. If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If you were lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, you could look forward to madness and paralysis.

Jail Fever (Epidemic Typhus): Spread through body lice, common in dirty, overcrowded conditions, it broke out mainly in jails like Newgate. It causes fever, headache, weakness, and rash, and can lead to swelling of the heart or encephalitis.

The King’s Evil (Scrofula): Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was believed to be curable by the touch of royalty as far back as Edward the Confessor. The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Charles II touched more than 90,000 people afflicted between 1660 and 1682.

Good thing Sally fancies a physician, huh?

Originally posted on Kimber Vale’s blog here. Stop by and say hi!

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.

Contraception in History IV: Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

One of the earliest mentions of condoms as we know them dates back to 150 CE to Antoninus Liberalis’ telling of the legend of Minos and Pasiphae. 

Pasiphae and the Minotaur
Minos was the mythological king of Knossos and the son of Zeus and Europa. He is probably best known for the labyrinth he used to feed children to the Minotaur, the lovechild (lovebeast?) his wife had with a particularly good-looking bull. Every nine years he would put fourteen Athenian children into the labyrinth to get lost and eventually eaten by this giant bull-creature until the Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus with the help of Minos’ human daughter, Ariadne. 

His wife, Pasiphae, was the immortal daughter of Helios. As the daughter of the sun god, she had magical powers, and used these to cast a spell on Minos when she discovered he had been unfaithful to her. Instead of just turning him into a frog or a better-looking bull, she cursed him to have serpents and scorpions in his semen. 

(This was in no way an explanation for something nasty he picked up from one of his many, many lovers.**)

The idea was that the serpents and scorpions would kill his other lovers (and they did), but that Pasiphae would be protected because she was immortal. 

She also had a condom made out of a goat’s bladder. 

The goat’s bladder was used as female condom because it was put inside Pasiphae to protect her from the killer scorpions, as opposed to protecting Minos from her. It was used to prevent the spread of infection rather than pregnancy, and condoms would continue to be used mainly to protect men from contracting diseases for centuries.

Pasiphae managed to conceive while using the goat’s bladder as a sort of scorpion-filter, though why anyone would want to have kids with that guy is beyond me. King of Crete or not, he cheated on her, imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus as a thank you for building him a labyrinth, and kept her half-beast son in a weird basement where he fed him live children.

All things considered, I can see why that bull might have seemed like a good idea at the time. 

**That’s exactly what this was.