Syphilis

Syphilis
   Venereal disease which became a major health problem in every part of Europe from the 1490s. The name comes from a poem published in 1530 by the physician Girolamo Fracastoro describing the illness and cure of a shepherd affected by the disease. Modern schol-ars disagree whether this was an entirely new disease or merely an epi-demic occurrence of a disease long established in Europe. Most con-temporary opinion regarded it as new and usually attributed its appearance to the infection of sailors from the ships of Christopher Columbus by women of the West Indies. This "Columbian" theory of its origin has been challenged, but most modern students of the question have concluded that while the evidence is not conclusive, the disease was new to Europe and was probably imported from the West Indies.
   Anthropological research has found no evidence of syphilitic lesions in human remains from European burials before 1492 and does find such evidence in American Indian remains. There is no clear evidence of syphilitic symptoms in the medical literature of Europe, the Muslim world, India, or China before 1493, and references to the disease become increasingly frequent after the 1490s. The first such references come from Spain in the 1490s; a Spanish physician wrote a treatise on the disease between 1510 and 1520, reporting that he treated victims of the disease at Barcelona in 1493. A Spanish humanist published a Latin poem at Salamanca in 1498 in which he described a disease he named las buvas, characterized by a sore on the genitals. The preced-ing year, the physician to Pope Alexander VI published a tract on what he called "the French disease," describing 17 cases he had attended. The army of King Charles VIII of France suffered an outbreak of the disease in December 1494 while besieging Naples, and Naples had frequent political and commercial contact with Spain.
   Thus the conventional accounts of the time attribute the introduction of the disease to sailors from Columbus' ships. The disease then spread rapidly, especially among soldiers and sailors, first in Spain and then in the kingdom of Naples, where French troops contracted it and carried it back to their homeland, thus beginning its rapid spread throughout Europe. The role of the French army explains why it was early named "the French disease" or "the French pox," though in France it was "the Neapolitan disease." All 16th-century accounts agree that the infection, affecting populations that had no natural immunity, was malignant, fast-moving, and quickly fatal. Because of its sexual transmission, it was often viewed as a judgment of God on human sinfulness. Modern anti-Columbians contend that before the 1490s the disease was simply misdiagnosed as leprosy or some other skin ailment or as one of the other venereal diseases known to be common in the Middle Ages. Complicating the discussion is the fact that the bacterium that causes the disease, treponemapallidum, is bacteriologically indistinguishable from the agents that cause yaws, pinta, and a number of less deadly skin diseases. Syphilis spread with epidemic rapidity, caused great alarm among European populations, and led to desperate but almost al-ways futile efforts to find medicines that would cure it.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.


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