Prevention Strategies and Changes in Sexual Mores in Response to the Outbreak of Syphilis in Europe in the Early Modern Age

Maria Salviati portrait by Pontormo, c. 1543.Prevention Strategies and Changes in Sexual Mores in Response to the Outbreak of Syphilis in Europe in the Early Modern Age

By Eugenia Tognotti

Journal of Ancient Diseases and Preventive Remedies, Vol.2:2 (2014)

Abstract: In the same way as AIDS in the 20th century, syphilis was the sexual scourge of the 16th century. Both of these sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and syphilis, placed women at the risk of becoming infected through sexual intercourse within marriage. Nothing is known about the individual strategies of women during the first European syphilis epidemic. On the basis of primary sources (in the form of archival material and personal letters), and of literary sources, this article tries to shed light on the preventive measures and behavioural choices adopted inRenaissance Italy. We take in account, in particular, the social and institutional context in which two structural factors were acting: the large-scale war involving long separation of spouses, and the diffusion of prostitution which offered more opportunities for men’s extramarital sexuality.

In 1494, the young king of France, Charles VIII, invaded Italy with an army of over 30,000 mercenary soldiers hired from all over Europe. In early 1495 (February 19th), his forces reached Naples, which was primarily defended by Spanish soldiers. After holding the town for a few months, Charles VIII demobilised his army. By the summer of that year, mercenaries, infected with a mysterious, serious disease, returned to their native lands or moved elsewhere to wage war, spreading the disease across Europe, striking Italy, France and Switzerland at the beginning and infecting almost all European countries in the following four years. When syphilis broke out in Italy in the summer of 1495, and almost simultaneously in the rest of Europe, the social and environmental context was ideal for its spread through the army mercenaries and the prostitutes whose numbers increased greatly in the Italian cities of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The troops were quartered in towns where they remained long enough to facilitate long-term sexual relationships and opportunities for men’s extramarital sex, which included rape and prostitution associated with the war.

Click here to read this article from the Journal of Ancient Diseases and Preventive Remedies

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