Lecture 3: SEX, SYPHILIS & SOCIETY
Adam Blatner, M.D.
October, 11, 2010 Given as part of Senior University
Georgetown's Fall 2010 program, Lesser-Known Aspects of the Early
See also: 1. The Early History of
Printing 2. Neoplatonism,
Humanism, Other New Philosophical Trends 4.
Medicine (Paracelsus, Vesalius, Pare)
Witch-Hunts 6 Summary
Medical history is an interesting “window”
on the more general world of history, and in this case, the emergence
of a new, previously unknown disease, adds to the ferment of
thinking—and its instability—as the pre-scientific worldview discussed
in the previous lecture began to reveal its vulnerabilities. But this
all happened very gradually, and that theme will be explored more in
the next talk about doctors who were slightly revolutionary.
The new disease of syphilis destabilized the medical hierarchy, opening
the “market” to those practitioners whom academic physicians
disdained—i.e., apothecaries, barber-surgeons, and other folk healers
and mere entrepreneurs.
The mores around sexuality began to shift. For example, bath-houses
began to close and Europe entered a several-century era of relative
uncleanliness, masked by perfume. There was more moralistic response
about venereal disease. As syphilis became less virulent, it became
more widely thought of as mild disease. Its connection with later
complications of the heart, the legs, insanity, and congenital problems
in one’s children was not recognized.
The types of treatment took some interesting twists: Although in fact
neither of major approaches (or any other at that time) really worked,
rumor and blandishments abounded and for many the treatment was worse
than the disease.
The impact of this disease on soldiers, battles, the outcome of wars,
colonialism, the mental state of those who are absolute rulers, and so
forth may have affected the course of history more than is generally
The Spanish had been fighting the Moors—the Muslim empire in Spain—for
centuries, and had driven them back to the southern tip in Granada. In
this effort, The most Catholic Queen Isabella of Castile married King
Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting their kingdoms as well as their lives. The
theme of unity mixed with their piety, and they resolved to remove
foreigners from their kingdom—not only Muslims who had co-existed with
the Spanish, but also the Jews, who had enjoyed a “golden age” under
the Muslim rulers. All were evicted. This was a catastrophe for the
Jews, some of whom migrated to the Netherlands; some as conversos—they
were nominally Catholic—under pressure of the Spanish Inquisition, to
the New World; some to Italy and the Turkish realms around the
Mediterranean, enriching these countries with the Jews’ know-how.
Alas, the exiled Jews had their lands and money confiscated by the
crown. (This had happened on a number of occasions over the previous
centuries in different countries.) The not-insignificant influx of
money allowed the rulers to fund Columbus’ expedition. Columbus’ own
journal recorded that his trip was ordered only after the realm had
been cleansed of Jews (Boorstin, 1983, p.232).
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