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Causes of Syphilis

This illustration of sufferers of syphilis, taken from a 1498 tract, not only shows the very visible nature of their affliction but also points to the chief cause of transmission of syphilis: sexual intercourse.

1498 scene of syphilis patients. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Today it is known that syphilis is caused by the spirochaete Treponema pallidum and, though primarily transmitted by sexual intercourse, can be transferred from infected mothers to foetuses. However, as Arrizabalaga et al (1997) have pointed out, though it was clear from the start that the cause of syphilis was sexual activity, this was not the only means of transmission blamed by early modern commentators. According to Friano degli Ubaldini of Bologna it was passed on ‘through eating and through drinking and through sexual activity’. Even Girolamo Fracastoro, whose name has been most commonly associated with the concept of syphilis as a contagious disease pointed not only to his ‘seeds of contagion’ but also, like many others, to astronomical causes.

François Calmette, writing in 1704, was another author whose works venereal disease were collected by Worth. He argued that syphilis was ‘contracted by Copulation with an infected Woman, by lying in the same Bed with one that has this Contagion, or any other manner of touching of them.’ As Siena (1998) has argued, there was a definite trend in early modern venereological tracts on blaming women for the contagion, men being presented as victims. One aspect of this was the war against the ‘wicked’ wet-nurse who in many related ‘cases’ is presented as infecting the child she nurses.

Selected Reading
Arrizabalaga, Jon, Henderson, John and French, Roger (1997) The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe (Yale).
Calmette, François (1706), Riverius reformatus (London). (Worth owned the English translation of 1706).
Siena, K. P. (1998), ‘Pollution, Promiscuity, and the Pox: English Venereology and the Early Modern Medical Discourse on Social and Sexual Danger’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 8, no. 4, pp 553-74.
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