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Syphilis Case Study

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Case Study: Naming Syphilis

Syphilis derives it name from an Italian humanist-physician called Girolamo Fracastoro who wrote a lengthy poem on the subject in the early sixteenth century. Fracastoro’s poem tells the story of the unlucky ‘Syphilis’, a shepheard who contracts the new disease as a result of his blasphemy. What made the poem so memorable was Fracastoro’s theory of contagion, which is examined elsewhere in this website. Fracastoro’s theory, with its radical ‘seminaria’ or seeds of contagion, has had undeniable appeal to modern historians of medicine but as Arrizabalaga et al (1997) remind us, the term ‘syphilis’ really only became popular in the later eighteenth century. As Nutton (1990) has argued, though Girolamo Fracastoro was responsible for giving the new disease a name, his poem on syphilis was rarely cited in Luigini’s compilatory work, possibly because his three-fold theory of contagion: by direct contact, by fomes in clothing and by long-distance contact, was only applicable in the first case to syphilis.

The disease we know as ‘venereal syphilis’ today was far more commonly called the ‘French Disease’ in the early modern period. This was a term agreed by Italians, Germans and English sixteenth-century commentators, i.e. countries all at war with France at the time. They justified their nomenclature by pointing to the rise of the disease after the French siege of Naples in 1495 and certainly with the dispersal of Charles VIII’s army on its way back to France, the disease took wings and quickly spread right across Europe. An example of this popular naming of venereal disease is not only visible on the title page of Worth’s 1566-7 edition of Luigini’s magnum opus, on view in the History page of this website, but also on the short title label on the spine of the book:

Title label of Luigi Luigini, De morbo Gallico (Venice, 1566-7).

As Arrizabalaga et al (1997) have pointed out, ‘Mal Francese’ or Morbus Gallicus to give it its Latin name, was a hot topic in Italian medical circles of the 1490s and on into the sixteenth century.

Naturally French physicians disagreed and retaliated by renaming the disease ‘the Italian Disease’: De morbo Italico (or sometimes the more geographically exact ‘Neapolitan Disease’). An example of this war over nomenclature is present in Worth’s own collection, where texts on ‘De morbo Gallico’ rest side by side with works on ‘De morbo Italico’ as this titlepage from Guillaume Rondelet’s Methodus curandorum omnium morborum corporis humani (Frankfurt, 1592) demonstrates:B.6.25.title-page
Guillaume Rondelet, Methodus curandorum omnium morborum corporis humani
(Frankfurt, 1592), title page.

But if Luigini entitled his work ‘De Morbo Gallico’ he was among the first to also deploy a new term for the disease: lues (which means pestilence/corruption). It was this term that was favoured (for obvious reasons) by French physicians such as Jean Fernel (1497-1558), who extended it to lues venerea. Lues venerea quickly became popular as a term as we can see from a number of titles in Worth’s collection: Jacopo Vercellone’s De pudendorum morbis et lue venerea tetrabiblion (Leiden, 1722); or its French equivalent: Nouvelle methode pour guérir les maladies veneriennes by Nicolaas Heinsius (Amsterdam, 1706) and Carlo Musitano’s Traité de la maladie venerienne (Trevoux, 1711). The same trend is true of the numerous chapters in Worth’s compilation volumes of medical practice from the later seventeenth century such as Tractatus III De Lue Venerea [in] Franciscus Sylvius de la Boe’s Opera Medica (Utrecht and Amsterdam, 1695) and Martin Lister’s Octo exercitationes medicinales; quarum I. De hydrope. II. De diabete. III. De hydrophobia. IV. De lue venerea. V. De scorbuto. VI. De arthritide. VII. De calculo humano. VIII. De variolis (London, 1697).

Selected Reading
Arrizabalaga, Jon, Henderson, John and French, Roger (1997) The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe (Yale).
Brown, Kevin (2006), The Pox. The Life and Death of a very Social Disease (Stroud).
Nutton, Vivian (1990), ‘The Reception of Fracastoro’s Theory of Contagion: The Seed that fell among thorns?’, Osiris 2nd Series, 6, Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition, pp 196-234.
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