Syphilis: The STD that Won and Lost Wars
In 1494, King Charles VIII of France launched an all-out war against the republics of the Italian peninsula, a watershed moment in history. Within months, 50,000 soldiers from his army had fled, not as a consequence of bad tactics or lack of preparation, but rather, something invisible to the naked eye.
A mysterious microbe, unrecorded in human history, had spread through Charles’ army, killing many of his men, or leaving them weak and disfigured. This sexually transmitted disease spread through much of Europe, and eventually traveled to Africa and Asia.
Syphilis: A Most Foul and Grievous Disease
“In the yere of Chryst 1493 or there about, this most foule and most grevous disease beganne to sprede amongst the people,” wrote German scholar and poet Ulrich von Hutten in his work on syphilis, “ On the Wood called Guaiacum ”, published in 1540. Colloquially called the French disease by some, the Italian disease by others, and the Christian disease by the Arabs, we know it today as syphilis, and the invasion and infection of Charles’ army was seen as the first harbinger of this vicious sexually transmitted disease.
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A medical illustration attributed to Albrecht Dürer, depicting a person with syphilis. Here, the disease is believed to have astrological causes. ( Public Domain )
Sexually transmitted diseases have been underreported throughout history and popular culture, but their spread and effects require observation. For example, in the data records of the US Army during World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were the second most common reason for disability and absence from duty, responsible for nearly seven million lost person-days and the discharge of more than 10,000 men.
Only the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 accounted for more loss of duty during that war. During World War II, infections were 43 per 1,000 men. The invention of penicillin in 1943 greatly helped bring down the spread and incidence of gonorrhea and syphilis among the populace.
In 1520, Dutch philosopher and renowned Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus, who was considered a great scholar of the northern Renaissance, wrote about the dreaded, yet unnamed disease: “If I were asked which is the most destructive of all diseases I should unhesitatingly reply, it is that which for some years has been raging with impunity … What contagion does thus invade the whole body, so much resist medical art, becomes inoculated so readily, and so cruelly tortures the patient?”, he enquired.
While syphilis was not nearly as devastating as the bubonic plague, it had painful and repulsive symptoms. These were the days before modern penicillin, and thus syphilis would start with genital sores appearing everywhere. This would be followed by foul abscesses and ulcers over the body, accompanied by severe pains. The remedies include mercury inunctions and suffumigations, with many patients dying from mercury poisoning – a slow and painful death as a side effect of misguided treatment.
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A 1709 drawing of mercury treatment of syphilis (Wellcome Collection / Public Domain )
Syphilis: A Byproduct of the Columbian Exchange
One hypothesis around the pallidum subspecies of the Treponema bacteria that causes syphilis is that it originated in the tropical Americas, and morphed into the virulent venereal, syphilis-causing strains to survive in the cooler climates across the Atlantic. So, where did it come from? Most definitely from South America; two species of yaws studied among isolated inhabitants showed evidence of the same bacterium.
Potatoes, tomatoes, sugar, tobacco, are some of the things we associate with the so-called Columbian Exchange , or the transfer of ideas, commodities, diseases, and floral and faunal species between the New World and the Old World. It alludes to Christopher Columbus ’ journey from Europe, across the Atlantic in 1492, to become the first European to land in ‘the Americas’, resulting in a complete transformation in the way the world was seen.
One of the lesser-known and unfortunate consequences of these voyages by Columbus and his notorious conquistadors was the spread of syphilis to Europe. This sexually transmitted disease (STD) was a byproduct of the brutal sexual assault and pillage committed by the conquistadors on the local populace, who were literally held at gunpoint. It has been a familiar feature of victorious armies and groups throughout history to subject the defeated populace’s women to unimaginably brutal sexual assault and rape, and to enslave the male population.
16th century engraving depicting the carrying of gold and silver for the ransom of the Inca Atahualpa in Cajamarca. The exploitation and enslavement of conquered peoples was common. ( Public Domain )
After Columbus’s crew unwittingly contracted the STD and carried it back to Europe, it spread like wildfire in a matter of months. Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum, whose severity and spread varies across four stages. If left untreated, it can eventually damage the heart, brain, eyes, and bones, and even be fatal!
"Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance," said George Armelagos, a skeletal biologist at Emory, who has been studying syphilis for three decades. "Understanding its evolution is important not just for biology, but for understanding social and political history. It could be argued that syphilis is one of the most important early examples of globalization and disease, and globalization remains an important factor in emerging diseases."
By 1495, the first recorded case of syphilis had been reported in Europe, although the name itself would be coined later in 1530 by Italian poet and physician Girolamo Fracastoro. Incidentally, this outbreak was in Naples, Italy during a French invasion by Charles VIII’s army .
The soldiers were mostly mercenaries – Flemish, Gascon, Swiss, Italian, and Spanish – and were accompanied by 800 camp followers, including cooks, medical attendants and prostitutes. After securing a victory, the soldiers engaged in protracted rounds of celebratory debauchery. In a short while, it became very clear that they had been afflicted by a terrible disease.
It was then colloquially known as the ‘French disease’ due to its spread by returning French troops, who had Treponema spirochetes bacteria in their blood. Very soon, a blame game had started across Europe, with each country blaming the other for the venereal disease. The disease went around being called grande verole , or the “great pox”.
On Charles’ return to France, most of his victorious army disbanded owing to sickness and ill health, facing defeats on the way back. They would take the disease back with them to their native lands, causing havoc across Europe.
Voltaire summarized it poignantly in his writings, saying that, “On their flippant way through Italy, the French carelessly picked up Genoa, Naples, and syphilis. Then they were thrown out and deprived of Naples and Genoa. But they did not lose everything – syphilis went with them.”
Top image: Syphilis infections surging through the military had an enormous impact in numerous wars. Source: 4k_Heaven / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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