October 14, 2004

See Your Smallpox and Raise You Syphilis

As many schoolchildren learn these days, Christopher Columbus and his sailors brought disease to the native people of the New World. What is less well known is that the native people of the New World probably returned the favor somewhat.

Shortly after Columbus and his crew returned to Europe, there was an outbreak of syphilis. An unusually bad strain of the disease spread swiftly, and within one year the outbreak hit France.

To help the disease spread throughout Europe, King Charles VIII of France conveniently marched an army of over 30,000 men to Naples. Prostitutes accompanied the men, and by the end of the two-year campaign the soldiers "violently drove out their harlots" from the camps. The soldiers blamed the women for spreading the disease amongst them.

After King Charles's army disbanded, soldiers recruited from Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland returned to their homes and took syphilis with them. Charles himself supposedly carried the disease.

Of course, the clergy were more than happy to take the syphilis outbreak as a sign that God was displeased with Europe's rampant debauchery. Syphilis altered attitudes about sex, and suddenly extramarital affairs and prostitution were no longer tolerated. The Reformation came along and ushered in a puritanical outlook towards sex.

Many historically significant Europeans of the day allegedly suffered syphilis's effects, from Christopher Columbus to England's Henry VIII* to Popes Alexander Borgia and Julius II. Luckily, the particularly bad strain of the disease would become less dangerous to future generations.

*One may want to note that syphilis is likely to blame for Henry VIII's famous difficulty in producing heirs.

Posted by Jennifer at October 14, 2004 07:00 AM


And then the Puritans escaped persecution in a presumably still somewhat debaucherous England and went to... America!

And, after a rough start, thay made rather a nice life for themselves on the continent.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at October 14, 2004 09:16 PM