Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Pox: Syphilis, Stigma & Shame

“A pox on both your houses!” or so goes the popular (mis)quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.[1]

Whether called the pox, the French disease or morbus gallicus, the Spanish sickness or the Spanish itch, the evil of Naples or the Neapolitan disease, or very simply the venereal infection, syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections plagued the early modern European people.[2]

Indeed, venereal diseases were so widespread, devastating, and stigmatized that people sought to name the disease after enemy countries to which they ascribed the disease’s origins.[3] 

It’s unsurprising then that many English called it the French pox.

Origins

But where did the pox come from?  Tests on medieval bone fragments suggest that it was not a disease that afflicted Europeans before the 15th century.  Though still a somewhat contested idea, the pox was, most likely, brought back from the New World by explorers.[4]

From Marten's A Treatise of Veneral Disease.
Peter Lowe, a 16th century Scottish surgeon, believed that this was the most probable origin of the disease, and cited that even “Spanish Historiographers” and “divers other learned men” held the opinion.[5] 

Gideon Harvey, the 17th century English physician, noted that it was the “Spaniards at Naples, in the year 1494” who first showed symptoms of the disease.  These explorers, he wrote, brought “new pretty curious fangles…[and] this new pock toy” from the West Indies, which they “soon made present of to several of their dearest Julietta’s at Naples.”[6] 

From there, the pox spread to other sexual partners and even to children.    

Both Lowe and Harvey record other opinions of the pox’s origins that help reveal contemporary beliefs and anxieties.

Some, for example, believed the pox was sent from God to punish sin.  Others that it was engendered in French soldiers who turned to cannibalism in times of war, or through sexual intercourse between a French leper and a Neapolitan prostitute who was menstruating at the time, or through the movements of the planets, or even by drinking wine tainted with a leper’s blood.

Symptoms…

Such beliefs reveal much about contemporary anxieties surrounding religion, female sexuality, uncleanliness, and war.

What precisely was the pox, however, is a bit difficult to pin down.  Though primarily referring to syphilis, it seems that early modern medical practitioners used the word “pox” as a catchall that referred to almost all venereal diseases. 

In an effort to better understand this new disease, practitioners drew parallels between its symptoms and those of the ailments with which they were already familiar.  To that end, they noted the similarities between pox and other diseases that manifested externally like smallpox, plague, and leprosy. 

Syphilis is a complicated ailment with many stages of differing symptoms.  First, come the raised sores at site of infection.  Once resolved, the disease begins a second stage that involves rash-like formations of other sores that tend to scab and scar.  This is accompanied by fevers, general feelings of malaise, hair loss, and an attack on the nervous system. 

While the disease may go into a latent stage, the patient is still infectious and women could (and did) give birth to babies already infected with the disease.

18th C skull of woman who suffered from syphilis
The very last stage of syphilis means even larger and more serious sores, further debilitating attacks on the nervous system, and blindness.  If he sores appeared on softer cartilage, perhaps on the nose for example, the patient could in fact lose the whole nose.

Needless to say, it was very difficult to hide the symptoms of the pox.  But it was easy to confuse the symptoms with another disease.  As Harvey wrote, “In short, the Pox is a Monarch, all other Diseases are its subjects, for there is no Disease, but one time or other is noted to accompany it.”[7]

18thC ivory replacement nose
& Stigma

There was pretty wide-spread recognition that syphilis was contracted through sexual activity.  Nevertheless, surgeons like Peter Lowe suggested that patients, such as one “Gentlewoman of a great Family” who he declared a virgin, could contract the disease from an infected toilet.  While yet another patient, a young apprentice of 15, was thought to have been infected by stepping on his master’s spit.[8]

Lowe did, however, recognize that infection also came through sexual activity and noted the case of 35 soldiers who slept with a single infected prostitute.  Of these, he noted, only 7 men were eventually infected – and these men were “weake” and “long in performing the act.”[9]

This association with loose morals, coupled with the disease’s foul symptoms, meant that syphilis was demonized and stigmatized by the early modern English.

Surgeon William Clowes argued that many infected were “rogues and vagabonds” who spread the disease in “lewd alehouses.”  In a short tract on the pox attached to Clowes’s A Prooved Practice, physician John Almenar pointed out that “they which are carefull to escape the French Pockes, let them first eschue sinne.”[10]  As Thomas Rosewell wrote, venereal diseases were a punishment for sin.  The “beastly adulterer, thou filthy fornicator, and unclean liver” needed to change their ways “lest the severity of God take hold of thee” through infection.[11]

Indeed, patients being treated for venereal diseases at St. Thomas Hospital in London were whipped in punishment. 

John Marten, surgeon, wrote a very popular book on venereal diseases where he laid blame on women.  Indeed, many of his case examples highlight women as a source of the disease, spreading it through vengeance, lies, and other behaviours.[12]

Women’s bodies were thought to be especially good breeding ground for the disease and blame for spreading the disease was linked to women of all walks of life – not just prostitutes.  Wet nurses and mothers, for example, were blamed for spreading the disease to children.

From Marten's A Treatise of Veneral Disease
Shame, Privacy, & Treatments

The stigma attached to syphilis meant that patients sought frequently to hide their ailment or how they contracted it.  Marten met frequently with those who sought to hide that they were infected with syphilis or to hide their manner of contracting the disease.  As he wrote, “nothing indeed is more common than that the Patient [lies] to avoid the Shame and Disgrace of having gotten it by Copulation.”[13]

Unsurprising, really!

In addition, this stigma meant that patients demanded privacy and medical practitioners, seeing increased revenue, were happy to comply.

1689 depiction of mercurial salivation.
Medical advertisements and handbills, for example, show that there was patient demand for secrecy:
 
Indeed, some medical practitioners offered secret or back entrances so others could not observe the patient.  Others even offered private lodging where the patient could be confined and cured without others noticing the telltale signs of mercury – the popular pox treatment.

The anonymous author of An Herculean Antidote even offered to send medicines by post for those too “ashamed to come.”  While yet others, likely as a marketing tool, insisted that syphilis could be contracted accidentally through falls, bruises, and heavy labour rather than through sexual impropriety with “foul women.”[14]

As noted earlier, the pox was frequently treated by mercury – it was dabbed onto the sores or ingested.  While this had some effect on syphilis, it was harsh and also had the negative side effect of slowly killing the patient with mercury poisoning.  This was also a treatment that could not be hidden.  When mercury was taken inwardly, patients salivated frequently and had a noticeable odour.

Instead, patients sought less harsh and less noticeable treatments.  To that end, those irregular practitioners who advertised their treatments promised to treat without mercury.[15] 
18th century Italian jar for mercury pills.
Kevin Siena has written and edited some fantastic work on VD, stigma, and shame if you’d like a detailed analysis.[16]

Let me know what you think here or on Twitter – I’m @medhistorian.



[1] Shakespeare wrote “plague” not “pox.”
[2] Girolamo Fracastoro coined the word “syphilis” in his 1530 Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus.  The word did not come into popular usage until centuries later.
[3] Claude Quétel, History of Syphilis, 16.
[4] A. Carmichael,Syphilis and the Columbian exchange: was the disease really new?” In: Marques MG, Cule J, editors. The great maritime discoveries and world health. Lisbon: Ecola Nacional de Saúde Pública (1991), p 187-200 & Mary Lindemann, Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe, 69.
[5] Peter Lowe, An Easie Certaine and Perfect Method (1576), Bv.
[6] Gideon Harvey, Little Venus Unmask’d (1670), 4.
[7] Harvey, 28.
[8] Lowe, B2v.
[9] Ibid., B2v.
[10] William Clowes, A Prooved Practice, 111.
[11] Thomas Rosewell, The Causes & Cure (1665), 67.
[12] John Marten, A Treatise of the Veneral Disease, 319.
[13] Ibid., 300-301.
[14] Anon. At the Sign of the Two Faces (17th century).
[15] Anon. At the Boot and Spatterdash (17th century).
[16] Kevin Siena,Venereal Disease Hospitals and the Urban Poor: London's Foul Wards,1600-1800 (Rochester, NY & Suffolk,UK: University of Rochester Press & Boydell and Brewer,2004); Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2006); “The “Foul Disease” and Privacy: The Effects of the Venereal Disease and Patient Demand on the Medical Marketplace in Early Modern London,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75,2 (2001), 199-224.

10 comments:

  1. i recently ended natural treatment from traditional healer, i got rid of syphilis out of my body with natural treatment. it so amazing i am not an syphilis patient anymore. everyone suffering from this sickness, should also be cure. contact the traditional herbalist dr galiga. through his email or website address drgaligaherbalcenter@gmail.com http://drgaligaherbalcent.wixcom/naturalcure

    ReplyDelete
  2. Is my great pleasure to introduce myself to you my good people, well i am Dr Stephen Yakoma known as (MR DO IT PERFECTLY ALL RIGHT) i am a man for the people why they call me me that name because i treat people until they are okay and well, i am a Dr of herbs and Hemp Oil which i use to cure my patient, i am well known all over the world i have cured so many people of cancer and different types of diseases, i have different department whom are ready to listen to your complains and attend to you with different medicines for every sickness/diseases i am specializes in herbal medications which i used for my patient no matter the sickness or diseases just contact us now via email we have two emails so we can always attend to our patient so easy and know what they really want they are canceroiltreatment@gmail.com which is for cancer and drstephenyakomaherbalhome@gmail.com the direct email for other diseases below is a list of some of the sickness/diseases we treat here, Cancer cerebella tumor, Cervical cancer Pelvic pain, Vaginal bleeding, Increased vaginal discharge/ Bleeding disorders, Hypertension Dizziness, Asymptomatic, High Blood Pressure Mouth ulcer Epilepsy Tonic–clonic seizure, Blank Stare, Mental confusion, Medulloblastoma Celiac disease, Vaginal bleeding, Increased vaginal discharge. Dehydration, Enophthalmia, Nausea, Dizziness HIV/AIDS, Kidney disease, Hepatitis/Arthritis/Asthma/Diabetes, Joint pain, Perianal pain, Nausea, Lymphadenopathy, Candidiasis, Paresthesia, Opportunistic infection, Herpes simplex, Spinal cord injury, Stroke/Sickle cell anemia, low sperm count. To mention but a few just contact now for your complains via email canceroiltreatment@gmail.com or drstephenyakomaherbalhome@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. My name is Florence grooner From Alabama USA I am so joyful in my heart now and I must say a very big thank you to Dr Stephen Yakoma for all he did for me in curing me from my herpes simplex after trying so many cure that did not work I went for a search were I saw a post on how he can treat all infections so I decided to try and see for myself he gave me some herbal tonic oil and mix with roots as he said after due process and treatment I discovered that my body has changed so I notify the doctor and he cleared me free from the infections this is so great and I can not keep it alone so I decided to tell all of you reading this that this man is real you can also try him as well here are his emails which I saw on the Internet drstephenyakomaherbalhome@gmail.com and also canceroiltreatment@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. As a sign of gratitude of how i was saved from syphilis, i decided to reach out to those still suffering from this.i suffered syphilis in the year 2013 and it was really tough and heartbreaking for me because the symptoms were terrible, i always have vaginal discharge, and body itching . we tried various therapies prescribed by our neurologist but none could cure me. I searched for a cure and i saw a testimony by someone who was cured and so many other with similar body problem, and he left the contact of the doctor who had the cure to syphilis . I never imagined syphilis . has a natural cure not until i contacted him and he assured me that i will be fine. I got the herbal medication he recommended and i used it and in one months time i was fully okay even up till this moment am so full of life.syphilis . has a cure and it is a herbal cure contact the doctor for more info on drwilliams098675@gmail.com on how to get the medication. Thanks for reading my testimony

    ReplyDelete
  5. Greetings to you all, i am here today on this forum giving a life testimony on how Dr.Aluya has cured me from HERPES VIRUS, i have been stocked in bondage with this virus for almost 2 years now, i have tried different means to get this sickness out of my body i also heard there was no cure to the virus, all the possible ways i tried did not work out for me, i do have the faith that i was going to be cured one day, as i was a strong believer in God and also in miracles, One day as i was on the internet i came across some amazing testimonies concerning how Dr Aluya has cured different people from various sickness with his Herbal Herbs Medicine, they all advised we contact Dr Aluya for any problem, with that i had the courage and i contacted Dr.Aluya i told him about my Sickness, He told me not to worry that he was going to prepare some Herbal Medicine for me, after some time in communication with Dr.Aluya, he finally prepared for me some herbs which he sent to me and he also gave me prescriptions on how to take the herbal medicine , My good friends after taking Dr.Aluya Herbs for some weeks i started to experience changes in me and from there, I noticed my HERPES VIRUS was no longer in my body, as i have also gone for test, Today i am fit and healthy to live life again, I am so happy for the good work of Dr.Aluya in my life, Friends if you are having any time of disease problem kindly email Dr.Aluya on { Dr.Aluyasolutiontemple@yahoo.com} or call him on +2347064851317} you can also visit him on his website Aluyasolutiontemple.webs.com for help God Bless you Sir.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My husband left me with 3 Children and went to stay with his Mistress whom i felt use a spell on him, I felt like ending it all, i almost committed suicide because he left us with nothing, i was emotionally down. But all thanks goes to Baba Alika, who i met online on one faithful day, as I was searching for tips to get my husband back home, I came across several testimonies about this particular man. Some people testified that he brought their Ex lover back, some testified that he help them to get pregnant,cure herpes simplex virus,and other sickness, and some testified that he prayed to stop divorce. He is amazing, i also come across one particular testimony, it was about a woman called Angeline, she testified about how he brought back her Ex lover in less than 2 days, and at the end of her testimony she dropped his email (babaalikahealinghome@gmail.com) After reading all these testimonies, I decided to give it a try. I contacted him and explained my problem to him. In just 48 hours, my husband came back to me. We resolved our issues, and we are even happier than ever. Baba Alika you are a gifted man and thank you for everything you had done in my life. If you have a problem and you are looking for a real and genuine spell caster, Try him anytime, he is the answer to your problems. you can contact him on email: babaalikahealinghome@gmail.com. he will surely help you solve your problem.

    ReplyDelete
  7. AM TERRY, THANKS TO DR ONIHA WHO CURED ME OF SIPHILIS. I CONTACTED THE DIESEASE WHEN I WAS DOING MY NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE, I WENT TO DIFFERENT HOSPITAL AND TOOK ALL SORT OF ANTIBIOTICS, AND THE SYMPTOMS STILL PERSISTED, UNTIL SOME ONE RECONMMENDED DR ONIHA HERBAL CURE TO ME, AND I WENT TO BUY THE HERBAL MEDCINE, I ONLY TOOK IT FOR THREE WEEKS, AND I WAS NO LONGER FEELING ANY SYMPTOMS UP TILL DATE.IN CASE YOU WANTS TO CONTACT HIM FOR A SIMILAR PROBLEM, YOU CAN CALL +2347089275769 OR EMAIL: DRONIHASPELL@YAHOO.COM.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Very interesting read. I've suffered with herpes ever since I was a child but it's only been the last few years I discovered that I have genital herpes. So I started looking for a way to get cure permanently from this deadly virus I visited so many hospitals in search for a solution but it never worked out.so I started searching for cure to my herpes virus.

    Few month ago I came across a site where a lady was sharing a testimony about Dr IJAHO about how he cured herpes and all kinds of diseases with is natural herbs so I decided to give it a try so I email the Dr he told me how I was going to get the herbs so I did as he instructed few days later I received the herbs and I started taking the herbs as instructed by the Dr.

    I was shocked two weeks after when my doctor told me that I was free from herpes so I decided to let the world know how I was cured from herpes by Dr IJAHO. you can reach him through his email: drijahosolutioncenter@gmail.com if you also want cure for your herpes or any of the disease listed below because the Dr says he also as cure for them.

    CANCER

    HEART FAILURE

    DAIBETES

    HPV

    EX BACK

    LOTTERY LUCKY NUMBER

    GENITAL WARTS





    His email:drijahosolutioncenter@gmail.com

    His whatsap number: +2348103601042

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a great and inspiring story! I was married for seven years without any child, because of this my husband start acting strange, coming home lately and not spending time with me any more and he divorced me. So i became very sad and lost in life because my doctor told me there is no way for me to get pregnant this really make life miserable for me. until i came across a friend who told me about Baba Alika from the Internet, how he has helped a lot of women with this similar problems that i am going through so i contacted him on: (babaalikahealinghome@yahoo.com) and explained to him. he told me all what to provide before he could cast a reunite spell to bring back my husband which i did and he sent a powerful prayer which i had to say at mid night while he cast the love spell. It was a miracle, 24 hours later my one and only husband came back to me and apologize for all he has done and told me he is fully ready to support me in any thing i want,i quickly call Baba Alika and told him what was going on at that moment, and he also prepared and sent me a herbal medicine which he said it will cure every unwanted diseases or infections that has been stopping me from conceiving then instructed me on how to use it before meeting with my husband. Behold after using this native herbs and root, few weeks later i started feeling pregnancy signs all over me, truly i was pregnant i just gave birth to twins (boys) on the 1st of this month. I Vow to let the whole world know about Baba Alika for saving my relationship and for also giving me children i can proudly call my own today. For any woman who think it impossible, here is an opportunity for you to smile and bring happiness to your family kindly contact Baba Alika via Email on: (babaalikahealinghome@yahoo.com). Indeed, he is a God sent to bring back lost lovers and bring you happiness...

    ReplyDelete
  10. In men, herpes blisters emerge on the penis, buttocks, anus, thighs, scrotum, inside the urethra, or inside the penis. In women, they appear on buttocks, cervix, vaginal area, anus, and external genitals. With the help of home remedies and preventive measures, this ailment can be minimized to a great extent. natural genital herpes relief

    ReplyDelete