The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe

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A century and a half after the Black Death killed over a third of the population of Western Europe, a new plague swept across the continent. The Great Pox - commonly known as the French Disease - brought a different kind of horror: instead of killing its victims rapidly, it endured in their bodies for years, causing acute pain, disfigurement and ultimately an agonising death. The authors analyse the symptoms of the Great Pox and the identity of patients, richly documented in the records of the massive hospital of 'incurables' established in early sixteenth-century Rome. They show how the disease threw accepted medical theory and practice into confusion and provoked public disputations among university teachers. And at the most practical level they reveal the plight of its victims at all levels of society, from ecclesiastical lords to the poor who begged in the streets. Examining a range of contexts from princely courts and republics to university faculties, confraternities and hospitals, the authors argue powerfully for a historical understanding of the Great Pox based on contemporary perceptions rather than on a retrospective diagnosis of what later generations came to know as 'syphilis'.
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Editorial Reviews

A weighty study exploring the impact of the French Disease also known as The Great Pox or syphilis to later generations in renaissance Europe. The medical history concentrates on the reactions of the doctors and others to the "new" disease, particularly in Italy but with comparisons to other part of Europe, identifies patients from the vast archives of charitable and sanitary institutions, and follows the development of confusion among the intellectual elite as the disease threw accepted medical theory out the window. Includes illustrations. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly investigation of the response in Italy, France, and Germany to the sudden appearence of a seemingly new disease, "the pox" (syphilis), in the 1490s.

The disease appeared first in Italy, in the wake of an invasion by French troops in 1494 and was quickly labeled "the French disease." Its alarming symptoms included joint pain (so intense, one contemporary chronicler observed, that those infected "screamed day and night without respite, envying the dead themselves"). Swellings appeared over the body, burst, and left blue or black scabs. Eventually, the disease corroded the features of the face, gnawing down "as far as the marrow." Those infected also, witnesses insisted, eventually developed a revolting odor. To a continent only recently recovered from the Black Death (which had killed a third of Europe's population 130 years earlier), this new disease seemed like an equally lethal calamity. And even though doctors quickly identified sexual intercourse as the method of transmission, the ultimate cause of the disease, as well as effective treatments for it, remained elusive. Some of the devout, considering how the disease was transmitted, felt that "the pox" was God's punishment on sinners and required no intervention. Arrizabalaga (History of Science/Consejo Superior de Investigaciones CientĂ­ficas, Barcelona), Henderson (Senior Research Fellow/Wellcome Institute, London), and French (History of Medicine/Cambridge Univ.) offer a great deal of period detail, but their goal here is not a social history of the new disease. They are most concerned with the differing responses of doctors, municipalities, the Church, and royal courts to the disease. For those interested in such matters, there is much that is fresh and intriguing here.

But lay readers, looking for a greater focus on the impact of the disease on society would do better to consult Claude Quétel's vivid History of Syphilis.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300069341
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/27/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.33 (w) x 9.41 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Read an Excerpt


This book is about the appearance of the French Disease in Renaissance Europe and the reactions of the doctors and other people to what was perceived by the majority as a new disease. Inevitably, given that research on the subject is still in its infancy in many countries, we have had to restrict our coverage to a series of interrelated case studies. Our main emphasis is on Renaissance Italy, but detailed comparisons with other parts of Europe have helped to show what was common and what special to the reaction of several of the countries of the Old World. The main historical argument of this book rests on the surviving written evidence about what people thought and did when the disease arrived and during the subsequent hundred years. Their thoughts and actions often had enough in common for us to see groups of people with some characteristic reaction to the disease. These groups and their reactions raised a number of questions from a single query: what made a particular reaction characteristic of the group that displayed it?

Of course these groups were not mutually exclusive, for a doctor was a citizen of this or that town and may have belonged to a religious confraternity, but as a medical man, as a citizen and member of a pious association he had purposes, interests and beliefs in common with other members of those groups. The purposes, interests and beliefs of groups had some bearing on how they reacted to the French Disease; and within a group the reactions of the individual reflected his other allegiances.

In the first place, what were the concerns of the learned doctors in the society of the time that madethem agree on aspects of the French Disease, and what led them to disagree? However much they disagreed among themselves, they agreed in disagreeing totally with other kinds of practitioners. Did the other practitioners have a characteristic response that derived from their position? Since the doctors were learned and rational, their characteristic action was to try to understand the French Disease. Undoubtedly they believed that understanding the disease was the surest way to treating and preventing it. But equally clearly it gave them a competitive edge in the medical marketplace: what relationship was there between the commercially useful image of the learned doctor and the content of his theoretical medicine?

Similar problems arose with men and women without medical training. Religious confraternities were clearly defined groups; they thought charitable thoughts and acted in charitable ways, including building hospitals. But were these the only reasons that hospitals for poxed patients were built? (And how charitable was compulsory admission to a hospital?) Did the perception of the pox by laymen who were responsible for public health differ from that of the learned doctors? Centrally, to what extent did they agree on how a person contracted the disease and how therefore it was transmitted? How characteristic of them as a whole was the reaction of the city authorities?

The confraternity, the hospital, the urban administration, the medical faculty were all in some sense institutions. The biggest institution of the time was of course the Church, and we explore in the following pages how the Church as a spiritual, political and very strong social force tackled the problems generated by the new disease. As an institution the Church was composed of smaller groups. One important charitable arm consisted of the religious orders. How, then, did the newer orders such as the Jesuits or the Capucin fathers take on and develop the example of the Observants in caring for the poor in general and the sick poor in particular?

Indeed, the biggest social group to be affected was the urban poor, if only because there were more of them. It had been the same in the Black Death, a century and a half before, and in the epidemics of "plague" which afflicted Europe every ten to fifteen years thereafter. The poor were noticeable in urban centres, and it was here that public health measures first evolved and also where civic authorities turned to physicians for advice. But the medicine of the university-trained physicians was not designed to cope with epidemics that were sudden, widespread, acute and fatal in the case of the plague, or chronic, disabling and disgusting, as with the French Disease. It was based on Greek and Arabic sources and was geared towards the long-term care of the class of citizens who could pay a physician's fees. We explore contemporary perceptions of how the pox affected the different social classes and what kind of medical help was available for them. Directly related is the question of how far experience of two great epidemics changed the attitudes and actions of the city authorities, towards public health in general and towards that of the poor in particular. Furthermore, how did plague and pox ultimately change European medicine as a whole?

As for cultural groupings, a doctor in a papal or princely court or a medical faculty might give his primary allegiance to Greek or Arabic authors and so think or behave differently. Despite being dispersed across several European countries, the hellenists were very conscious of being a group with common aims. They therefore had a characteristic reaction to the French Disease. How did this reaction work out in the practice of medicine? To what extent were the humanists a coherent group throughout Europe with common ideals that might influence the way they perceived the pox?

Few would have disagreed that the arrival of the French Disease was an act of God. This was thus part of the nature of the disease and part of its contemporary perception. To invoke the image of St. Job and to exercise piety and charity might seem the characteristic reaction of a major group, the whole of Christendom. But northern Europe practiced a different religion after the Reformation. Did these changed affiliations of the new group affect its perceptions of the French Disease?

These issues are studied in the following chapters. Disputations in a faculty and a princely court make the allegiances of the disputants clear. When learned physicians are competing for the favours of a pope or ducal patron, their strategies are revealed. The death of a cardinal at the hands of his doctors highlights the dangers of administering mercury. The administration of a large hospital generates paperwork that reveals a great deal about the patients. All this accumulated experience formed contemporary perceptions of the disease, the answer to our quaestiones disputatae: what did people think and do about the disease?

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Table of Contents

List of Plates, Figures, Tables
1 Syphilis and the French Disease 1
2 The Arrival of the French Disease in Renaissance Italy: initial impact and lay reactions 20
3 God's Punishment: lay perceptions of the French Disease in Ferrara 38
4 The Medical Dispute at the Court of Ferrara 56
5 The French Disease in Northern Europe: the case of Germany 88
6 The French Disease and the Papal Court 113
7 The French Disease and the Hospitals for Incurables in Italy until 1530 145
8 The French Disease and the Incurabili Hospitals, 1530-1600: the case of Rome 171
9 Catching the Pox: contagion 234
10 The French Disease Grows Old 252
Conclusion 278
Notes 283
Index 341
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