Syphilis in Early Modern Europe
Syphilis treatment at home: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
As Boehrer (1990) suggests, syphilis is the quintessential disease of Renaissance Europe. It was recognisably a new disease, something that the ancient writers Hippocrates and Galen had not encountered and therefore one which undermined old certainties by demanding new treatments.
It was also complex, presenting the early modern physician with a challenging diagnostic task, for it incorporated old symptoms in new ways. For examples, it was not until 1879 that it was recognised that another sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhoea, was a separate, distinct, disease and not part of venereal syphilis as had been the dominant understanding in early modern Europe.
It was also mutable, changing over time, initially virulent, but quickly becoming less of an apocalyptic horror by the mid 1550s.
Its cause was unknown (and would remain so until the early twentieth century until the bacterium Treponema pallidum was identified in 1905) but that did not inhibit early modern physicians from suggesting possible origins.
Even its name was the subject of contention as the case study in this section demonstrates.
Books specifically on Syphilis in the Worth Library (there are other works which include chapters on the topic also):
Brasavola, Antonio Musa (1553), Antonii Musae Brassavoli … Examen omnium loch, idest linctuum, suffuf, idest puluerium, aquarum, decoctionum, oleorum, quorum apud Ferrarienses pharmacopolas usus est, vbi de morbo Gallico diligentissime copiosq; tractatur … (Venice). 8o.
Calmette, François (1706), Riverius reformatus: or The modern Riverius; containing the modern practice of physick. … Unto the whole are added, a treatise of venereal diseases, and the secrets of the famous Lazarus Riverius, never publish’d before. Translated from the third edition in Latin. By a doctor of physick (London). 8o.
Deidier, Antoine (1724), De morbus veneris ac tumoribus (London). 8o.
Fracastoro, Girolamo (1591) Operum (Lyons). 8o. Worth also had a later edition, printed at Geneva in 1621).
Heinsius, Nicolaas (1706), Nouvelle methode pour guérir les maladies veneriennes. Où il est traitté de certains remedes jusques ici inconnus … avec un appendice de plusieurs observations touchant les malades qui ont ete´ gueris par les dits remedes par Nicolas de Heins. Nouvellement traduit du Hollandois (Amsterdam). 12o.
Luigini, Luigi (1566-67), De morbo Gallico omnia quae extant apud omnes medicos cuiuscenque nationis … in unum … corpus redacta. … (Venice). 2o. (This is a major compilatory work, comprising many tracts on the subject). Worth had the later edition by Hermann Boerhaave also: Luigini, Luigi, Aphrodisiacus, sive De lue venerea; in duos tomos bipartitus, continens omnia quaecumque hactenus de hac re sunt ab omnibus medicis conscripta. … Ab … Aloysio Luisino … novissimé collectum (Leiden, 1728). 2o.
Monte, Giovanni Battista da (1555), Io. Baptistae Montani … De excrementis lib. II. à Valention Lublino … in studiosorum communem utilitatem dati. Alter de fecibus, alter de urinis. Quibus accessit Quaestio eiusdem, quomodo medicamentum aequale, vel inaequale dicatur. Tractatus etiam vtilissimus, De morbo Gallico (Paris). 16o.
Musitano, Carlo (1711), Traité de la maladie venerienne… Nouvellement traduit avec des remarques par Mr. D.V (Trevoux). 12o.
Vercellone, Jacopo (1722), De pudendorum morbis et lue venerea tetrabiblion (Leiden). 8o.
Boehrer, B. T. (1990), ‘Early Modern Syphilis’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 1 no. 2, pp 197-214.