Pox and Paranoia in Renaissance Europe

J.S. Cummins considers the impact of syphilis on the 16th-century world – a tale of rapid spread, guilt, scapegoats and wonder-cures, with an uncomfortable modern resonance.

Pliny the Elder noted that exploration, expansion and empire brought problems as well as novelties in their wake and, discussing new diseases in particular (Natural History), he commented on one complaint brought home by a Roman knight after service in Asia Minor. This, a scaly facial eruption, jokingly called 'Chin Gout' (Mentagra) by those not afflicted with it, puzzled Pliny, not least because it chose its victims from one special stratum of society: women and the lower orders were immune, noblemen alone suffered from it. He concluded this must be because of their custom of kissing each other in greeting. 'Chin Gout' required drastic measures: the flesh was burnt down to the bone with caustic which left a scar almost as disfiguring as the disease itself. Pliny began to wonder what could have so angered the gods as to make them want to add one more to the three hundred diseases already afflicting humanity.

Contact with the East, then, had its dangers, but so too had contact with the West. In the sixteenth century European-borne diseases contributed to the collapse of the two great Amerindian civilisations. The effects of smallpox alone in early America have been compared to those of the Black Death in Europe, for the genetically-virgin peoples of the vast and hitherto isolated continent of the New World were helpless before the invaders' viruses.

America, however, exacted revenge for the invasion of the western paradise. The New Eden had a serpent too, and Columbus brought home more than treasure: 'There were', wrote Fallopius, 'aloes hidden in that honey'. The Europeans who took smallpox into the New World brought home the great pox, syphilis, the only disease to be named after a Renaissance Latin poem.

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