Bearing the Cross: Syphilis and the Founding of the Holy Cross Hospital in Fifteenth-Century Nuremberg
Constructing the Medieval and Early Modern across Disciplines – Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies 2011 Multidisciplinary Graduate StudentConference, edited by Karen Christianson (Chicago, 2011)
“In recent times I have seen scourges, horrible sicknesses and many infirmities afflict mankind from all corners of the earth. Amongst them has crept in, from the western shores of Gaul, a disease which is so cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing so horrifying nothing more terrible or disgusting, has ever been known to the earth.”
These were the words of Joseph Grünpeck, a scholar blighted by syphilis, at the close of the fifteenth century. In 1494 the troops of King Charles of France besieged the city of Naples. At that siege the scourge of syphilis made international renown. Accounts of intense pain and bodily disfigurement preceded the French soldiers as they marched home, proliferating this French disease in their wake. These accounts sent waves of anxiety across Europe as local leaders feared the afflication’s reach. Correspondence raced between scholars and city magistrates as they attempted to learn anything about this ailment that spread at the pace of plague and left people as horrifically disfigured as leprosy. At this point, even the connection between syphilis and sexual relations was unknown.
As syphilis crept up from southern Italy the Nuremberg city council, like many leaders elsewhere, prepared for the impending onslaught of this mysterious new disease. As the highest political authority in the city, the council considered the health of its citizens its responsibility. Members solicited the opinions of doctors for news of the latest treatments and studied reports from other cities’ attempts to stave off the disease. They did everything in their power to eliminate the contagion and care for the city’s sick.