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The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe

The earliest known medical illustration of patients suffering from syphilis, Vienna, 1498The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe

By Eugenia Tognotti

Journal of Medical Humanities, Volume 30, Issue 2 (2009)

Abstract: The rapid changes that syphilis underwent after the first major outbreak that occurred in Naples in the mid-1490s are believed to constitute the first well-documented example of a human disease. The new plague was of exceptional virulence, highly contagious and causing severe ulceration at the site of infection. According to medical and other historical sources, the ‘genius epidemics’ changed some years after this onset, and a slower-progressing form of syphilis seems to have replaced the initial severe form, as do many virulent epidemic infectious diseases that appear in devastating forms in a previously uninfected population. But what exactly were the features of the disease at the moment of its appearance in Europe at the end of the fifteenth century? How many years did it take for the early, virulent form to be replaced and become endemic? What was the pace of these changes through the decades following the onset of the epidemic? In this essay, I review these issues through an analysis of a large number of chronologically-ordered primary historical sources.

Introduction: In the heated controversy on the origin of syphilis, there are two points on which the partisans of the various theories agree: syphilis first appeared in Naples in its epidemic form in 1495, and after several years, the severity of the symptoms began to abate. However, with regards to this, we have only second-hand information reiterated over the centuries by syphilographers and historians of medicine. What is missing is an accurate, chronologically-ordered review of first-hand testimonies. In fact, as one moves further away in time from when the changes were recorded by contemporaries, the information on the early symptoms and the evolution of the virulent disease becomes ever less precise. Therefore, what do the firsthand sources really tell us about the new plague, its initial features and the subsequent changes of the disease, and about the timing of this shift to a reduced severity? In this paper, I will focus in particular on these issues through the analysis of a variety of primary and secondary sources, in several languages, of a medical, literary, and annalistic nature, collecting the medical descriptions and the memories of the sufferers, some of which have not been taken into account.

Click here to read this article from Concordia University Wisconsin

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