Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th-Century Europe

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Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th-Century Europe

Eric B. Ross

Current Anthropology, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 333-337


While debate continues over the geographical origin of syphilis (Baker and Armelagos 1988, Saul 1989), it is generally agreed that it made its appearance in Europe at the end of the 15th century. At the time, Europeans became aware of a new and virulent sexually transmitted disease that seems to have spread northward from Mediterranean Europe (Quetel 1990:10-15). Whether it originated in the Americas or in North Africa or even evolved in Europe from a previous form such as yaws, the societal consequences of syphilis would probably have been the same. But what were they? The debate over the origins of syphilis in Europe has tended to obscure any systematic consideration of its effects. Yet, it may have been implicated in the inexplicable wave of witchcraft hysteria that swept across much of Europe during the same period. Why most of its victims were women has never been satisfactorily explained, nor has the timing of this widespread explosion or misogyny (Monter 1976:197). Syphilis may provide some clues.

Witchcraft beliefs, though a long standing part of European folk tradition, are generally agreed to have been qualitatively transformed during the 16th century. As Cohn (1975:224) has observed, “Until the late fourteenth century the educated in general, and the higher clergy in particular, were quite clear that these nocturnal journeyings of women, whether for benign or for maleficent purposes, were purely imaginary happenings

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