Art, Health and History: The Great Pox part one

In this series, Steph takes a look at the darker undertones of William Hogarth’s prints, and what they and other artworks can tell us about a new and terrifying disease that ravaged Early Modern Europe.

Our current Prints of Darkness exhibition offers all sorts interesting and sinister insights into human nature. Hogarth’s prints are full of supremely funny satire and people from all walks of life behaving badly, many of whom display signs of a disease closely tied to concepts of morality. Syphilis is a disease which is unique to humans. Where did this terrifying disease which plagued Early Modern Europe come from and why was it so virulent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? What did people think when it made its first appearance?

A Rake's Progress, Plate 3, 1735 (etching)
William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, plate 2.  Tom Rakewell keeps company with some prostitutes, who wear black spots to hide the evidence of syphilis.  Source: the Whitworth online collections

The venereal mode of transmission for this disease and the extremely disfiguring effects it could sometimes have on its victims meant that those who were afflicted could have their reputation damaged. The bacteria which causes the disease, Treponema palladum, was not identified until 1905 and the efficacy of newly discovered antibiotics as a treatment, such as Penicillin, not proven until 1943. Throughout history it’s thought that syphilis has infected many interesting characters; Al Capone, Cesare Borgia, Charles Baudelaire, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the aspiring singer Florence Foster Jenkins (whose bad singing has been attributed to complications caused by syphilis). Various others are speculated to have been affected by syphilis, but its ability to mimic other ailments can make a diagnosis difficult.

Steph pic 2 Ulric von Hutten
Woodcut image depicting Ulrich Von Hutten suffering from syphilis. He advocated the use of guaiac as a treatment. Source: Wellcome Trust.

There are various theories as to the origins of syphilis and exactly when it first appeared in Europe. The French invasion of Naples in 1494-5 is often seen by many historians as the first major macabre debut of syphilis in Europe. The Columbian theory of the disease states that the disease was brought back from the New World by Europeans, perhaps by Columbus’ crew first. This theory is thought to potentially hold the most weight in terms of physical evidence via human remains from the island of Hispaniola displaying lesions on the bones consistent with syphilis, dating back to a period before Europeans colonised there. A discovery of bones from the Blackfriars monastery in Hull seemed to some to lend support for the pre-Columbian theory of the disease. This case, which was presented in a documentary, has not been submitted for peer review and it has been suggested that the lesions were perhaps caused by yaws or tuberculosis. The exact origins of syphilis are still debated today.

The bacterium responsible for causing yaws happens to be in the same family as that which causes syphilis. Both theories have put forth  to some extent the idea that contact between Europeans and the inhabitants of the New World may have caused the bacteria to change and develop into a venereal and more virulent disease. News articles which discuss the origin theories of this disease sometimes look for who might be to ‘blame’ or ‘not to blame’ for the disease, in some ways this is not so different from Early Modern commentators on syphilis. No one really wants a disease, particularly a venereal disease, being associated with their country of origin. Of course no one is truly to blame for a disease, these things just occur in nature, but the language that we have used and still sometimes use today regarding diseases is often tied to elements of fear and shame.

Naming the Pox

Steph pic 3 Durer 1496 woodcut
Dürer’s 1496 woodcut depicting a mercenary with syphilis. Source: Wellcome Trust.

When the French king Charles VIII attacked Naples in 1494, his army was comprised mostly of mercenaries. The French forces were eventually defeated by a ‘Holy League’ of forces recruited by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, Pope Alexander VI, Venice, Milan and Spain. Alexander Benedetto, a Venetian physician and doctor to Pope Alexander VI, discussed in 1497 how this disease the French forces were afflicted with had not been seen before. He was quite clear as to its origins; he discussed how the French had consorted with prostitutes as they occupied Naples for some months in 1495. Some historians have argued that the seeming virulence of this strain of syphilis was due to multiple diseases acting together. This strain appears to have killed its victims quickly and it appeared to be highly contagious, perhaps more so than syphilis today.

The Italians dubbed this disease Morbus Gallicus or the French disease. The French called it the Mal de Naples and it’s said they took it back with them to France. As this new (or newly virulent) disease spread across Europe it gained many names; it was known as the German disease, the Polish disease and the Russian disease. These names usually reflected the routes that people thought it had taken into their country. They also, to some extent, initially reflected the attitudes of different nations towards each other at the time, usually in relation to conflict. Xenophobia is no stranger to the history of disease; Jews had been blamed for the bubonic plague outbreak which swept across Europe in the 1340s. They were also blamed by some for the spread of syphilis, which was sometimes likened to leprosy. Although the names given to syphilis were meant to be insulting, at least by those who first used them, it seems to be largely where the offence ends. There seem to be no accounts of people having been rounded up and brutalised on account of their nationality specifically with regard to syphilis and physicians would utilise ideas about treatments originating with physicians in other countries.

Steph pic 4 Sadeler engraving. Syphilus.
Engraving by Jan Sadeler I depicting Fracastoro’s characters of Syphilus and the hunter Ilceus. Fracastoro appears as an old man gesturing towards the statue of Venus and warning the men not to be seduced by the seated woman or drink unclean water. Source: Wellcome Trust.

It was a Latin poem published by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1530 which gave us the name ‘syphilis.’ The poem told the story of a shepherd named Syphilus who was punished by Apollo with a terrible disease, which caused him to be shunned. It accurately described the symptoms of syphilis and discussed methods by which one might try to cure themselves. The popularity of the poem meant that some people began to refer to the disease as syphilis, but the name was not very widely used in Britain until the nineteenth century. Fracastoro had a theory about seeds of disease which transmitted disease from person to person and even onto objects. These could be transmitted through the air or, with some diseases, direct contact with a carrier. This is a very impressive forerunner of the germ theory and it has quite rightly earned Fracastoro a place as one of the fathers of modern medicine. He also observed the disease did not seem as vicious as it had in the 1490s. It seemed to him that it no longer killed its victims swiftly.

Names such as ‘the French pox’, sometimes the ‘great pox’ to differentiate it from smallpox, or just ‘the pox’ became the vernacular for the disease in England. Few people actually called it syphilis early on and those who did were from more educated circles. Daniel Turner, a surgeon and physician writing in the early eighteenth century, is thought to have been the first person to use the term in the English language. Many also used terms such as ‘clap’ for the disease, a term we associate with gonorrhoea today. During the eighteenth century many thought that gonorrhoea and syphilis were the same disease, perhaps because of the decline in the virulence of syphilis over the centuries but also no doubt due to an unfortunate experiment performed by the surgeon John Hunter upon himself. Hunter infected himself with pus from someone suffering from gonorrhoea and later developed symptoms of syphilis, taking that to mean that the two diseases were actually the same.

Further Reading:

Peter Lewis Allen, The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present (London, 2000).

Catherine Arnold, City of Sin: London and Its Vices (London, 2010).

Lawrence I. Conrad, Michael Neve, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter, Andrew Wear,The Western Medical Tradition 800 BC to AD 1800 (Cambridge, 2003).

Hugh Crone, Paracelsus: The Man Who Defied Medicine (Melbourne, 2004).

John Frith, ‘Syphilis- Its Early History and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins’, Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health 20:4

Fred D. Gray, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: The Real Story and Beyond(Montgomery, 2013).

James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (New York, 1993).

Fiona Haslam, From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain: (Liverpool, 1996).

Debora Hayden, Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis (New York, 2003).

Monika Pietrzak-Franger, Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility (Hamburg, 2017).

Gabriel A. Rieger, Sex and Satiric Tragedy in Early Modern England: Penetrating Wit (Farnham, 2009).

Richard M. Swiderski, Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury (Jefferson, 2008).

Perry Treadwell, God’s Judgement? Syphilis and AIDS: Comparing the History and Prevention Attempts of Two Epidemics (New York, 2003).

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