Syphilis in Early Modern Europe

by Jamie Whittenberg (Vanderbilt University)

Syphilis, a highly infectious sexually transmitted disease, sparked fear among the early Europeans. And for good reason.

Syphilis has three stages, the last being deadly and untreatable if advanced enough. First recognized as an outbreak in 1494 in Naples among the French mercenary troops, it quickly spread to all parts of Europe. Faced with such a contagious and disfiguring disease, the early Europeans quickly blamed one another or attributed it to external forces such as interspecies sex, the planets, or witchcraft (1).

Often, the men were most often depicted as victims of syphilis. The course of the disease: a woman, the carrier of death. The case of Bellina Loredana exemplifies this attitude. She was accused of inflicting the disease on a prostitute through witchcraft, until she was (partly) exonerated due to the prostitute's obviously promiscuous behavior. Still, the idea that women spread the disease by seducing men was prevalent (2).

As the disease spread, early modern Europeans began to turn to more naturalistic causes for syphilis. This evolved into two theories: Pre-Columbian and Post-Columbian. The former operated on the belief that syphilis was always present in Europe, possibly misdiagnosed as leprosy. Although the surge may have been noticed after contact with the New World, this theory states that it is just a coincidence. The Post-Columbian theory suggests that syphilis was a disease brought over from the Indians and that no European country was to blame, no matter how much they bickered among each other (1).

No consensus was reached on who was correct in this matter. Many seemed to offer contradictory views on the subject, such as John Smith. He at once called syphilis the "French pockes" as well as the "Indian disease" within one sentence. Both theories are present in his statement. Even looking retrospectively, bio-archaeologists have found it impossible to determine which theory is correct. They studied for syphilitic lesions on the bones in pre-contact Europe and America (1). Although they did find evidence of syphilis in early America, it does not have the characteristic dental pathology that is typical with syphilis. Therefore, it is still undetermined to this day whether syphilis came over from the New World, or if syphilis exploded into a potent form during the siege in Naples in 1494 (1).

Image: Gilman, Sander L. "AIDS and Syphilis: The Iconography of Disease." October (1987): (43) 87-107.

(1) Qualitiere, Louis F. & William Slights. "Contagion and Blame in Early Modern England: The Case of the French Pox." Literature and Medicine (2003): (22) 1, 1-24.

(2) McGough, Laura J. "Demons, Nature, or God? Witchcraft Accusations and the French Disease in Early Modern Venice." Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2006): (80) 2, 219-246.

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  1. I read once that if you 'know' the history of syphilis you 'know' the history of medicine. I have long found the subject fascinating because there are so many tales. When I first read this I thought, ha, wrong - weren't there those skeletons of fourteenth century monks found fairly recently in Hull with evidence of syphilis...predating Columbus? So I did a quick google and found this http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/fishy-diet-of-monks-suggests-columbus-imported-syphilis-link-685263.html so you're right, Jamie. Thanks for educating me.

    I also remember reading that it is thought that syphilis was once a tropical harmless disease of the skin in the tropics but as men migrated to colder climes it had to adapt to live in other parts of the body where it could survive. No idea where I heard this, but yet another aspect of this fascinating spirochete.

    Thanks for setting me off this morning, Jamie. A very interesting article!

  2. *Sigh*. Women always get the blame, don't they? Great entry, very well written!

  3. Funny how we haven't moved far past this concept.

    Maybe in another few hundred years, we'll finally take diseases for what they are, instead of immediately attaching the politics of race and sexuality to them.

    In my un-educated view, it feels as though, the longer we look for the phantom of the cause, the longer we take to dealing with, controlling, then finally curing the disease.

  4. Interesting stuff. So it's not known before 1494?

    I would have thought a little DNA analysis would deal with the origin question. If it's as young as 500 years, shouldn't it be possible to find what bacterium it split from? And if it's South American, mightn't there be some trace of genetic drift between old and new worlds?

  5. I second, and third Alex G. Longing for the day when disease and causality aren't soaked in a stigma bath before getting around to, you know, treatment...fabulous post, thanks

  6. I have been wondering about this issue for some time too. You've done a great job describing


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