The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe

The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe

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One hundred and fifty years after the Black Death killed a third of the population of Western Europe, a new plague swept across the continent. The Great Pox—commonly known as the French disease—brought a different kind of horror: instead of killing its victims rapidly, it endured in their bodies for years, causing acute pain, disfigurement, and ultimately an agonizing death.

In this new study, three experts explore the impact of the new plague and society's reaction to its challenge. Using a range of contemporary sources, from the archives of charitable and sanitary institutions that coped with the sick to the medical tracts of those who sought to cure it, they provide the first detailed account of the experience of the disease across Renaissance Italy as well as in France and Germany.

The authors analyze the symptoms of the Great Pox and the identity of patients, richly documented in the records of the massive hospital for "incurables" established in early sixteenth-century Rome. They show how it challenged accepted medical theory and practice and provoked public disputations among university teachers. And at the most practical level, they reveal the plight of its victims at all levels of society, from ecclesiastical lords to the diseased poor who begged in the streets. Examining a range of contexts from princely courts and republics to university faculties, confraternities, and hospitals, the authors argue powerfully for a historical understanding of the Great Pox based on contemporary perceptions rather than a retrospective diagnosis of what later generations came to know as "syphilis."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300213171
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/02/1997
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 881,154
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jon Arrizabalaga is researcher in the history of science at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Barcelona. John Henderson is senior research fellow at the Wellcome Institute, Cambridge. Roger French is university lecturer in the history of medicine, Cambridge.

Read an Excerpt


This book is about the appearance of the French Disease in Renaissance Europe and the reactions of the doctors and other people to what was perceived by the majority as a new disease. Inevitably, given that research on the subject is still in its infancy in many countries, we have had to restrict our coverage to a series of interrelated case studies. Our main emphasis is on Renaissance Italy, but detailed comparisons with other parts of Europe have helped to show what was common and what special to the reaction of several of the countries of the Old World. The main historical argument of this book rests on the surviving written evidence about what people thought and did when the disease arrived and during the subsequent hundred years. Their thoughts and actions often had enough in common for us to see groups of people with some characteristic reaction to the disease. These groups and their reactions raised a number of questions from a single query: what made a particular reaction characteristic of the group that displayed it?

Of course these groups were not mutually exclusive, for a doctor was a citizen of this or that town and may have belonged to a religious confraternity, but as a medical man, as a citizen and member of a pious association he had purposes, interests and beliefs in common with other members of those groups. The purposes, interests and beliefs of groups had some bearing on how they reacted to the French Disease; and within a group the reactions of the individual reflected his other allegiances.

In the first place, what were the concerns of the learned doctors in the society of the time that madethem agree on aspects of the French Disease, and what led them to disagree? However much they disagreed among themselves, they agreed in disagreeing totally with other kinds of practitioners. Did the other practitioners have a characteristic response that derived from their position? Since the doctors were learned and rational, their characteristic action was to try to understand the French Disease. Undoubtedly they believed that understanding the disease was the surest way to treating and preventing it. But equally clearly it gave them a competitive edge in the medical marketplace: what relationship was there between the commercially useful image of the learned doctor and the content of his theoretical medicine?

Similar problems arose with men and women without medical training. Religious confraternities were clearly defined groups; they thought charitable thoughts and acted in charitable ways, including building hospitals. But were these the only reasons that hospitals for poxed patients were built? (And how charitable was compulsory admission to a hospital?) Did the perception of the pox by laymen who were responsible for public health differ from that of the learned doctors? Centrally, to what extent did they agree on how a person contracted the disease and how therefore it was transmitted? How characteristic of them as a whole was the reaction of the city authorities?

The confraternity, the hospital, the urban administration, the medical faculty were all in some sense institutions. The biggest institution of the time was of course the Church, and we explore in the following pages how the Church as a spiritual, political and very strong social force tackled the problems generated by the new disease. As an institution the Church was composed of smaller groups. One important charitable arm consisted of the religious orders. How, then, did the newer orders such as the Jesuits or the Capucin fathers take on and develop the example of the Observants in caring for the poor in general and the sick poor in particular?

Indeed, the biggest social group to be affected was the urban poor, if only because there were more of them. It had been the same in the Black Death, a century and a half before, and in the epidemics of "plague" which afflicted Europe every ten to fifteen years thereafter. The poor were noticeable in urban centres, and it was here that public health measures first evolved and also where civic authorities turned to physicians for advice. But the medicine of the university-trained physicians was not designed to cope with epidemics that were sudden, widespread, acute and fatal in the case of the plague, or chronic, disabling and disgusting, as with the French Disease. It was based on Greek and Arabic sources and was geared towards the long-term care of the class of citizens who could pay a physician's fees. We explore contemporary perceptions of how the pox affected the different social classes and what kind of medical help was available for them. Directly related is the question of how far experience of two great epidemics changed the attitudes and actions of the city authorities, towards public health in general and towards that of the poor in particular. Furthermore, how did plague and pox ultimately change European medicine as a whole?

As for cultural groupings, a doctor in a papal or princely court or a medical faculty might give his primary allegiance to Greek or Arabic authors and so think or behave differently. Despite being dispersed across several European countries, the hellenists were very conscious of being a group with common aims. They therefore had a characteristic reaction to the French Disease. How did this reaction work out in the practice of medicine? To what extent were the humanists a coherent group throughout Europe with common ideals that might influence the way they perceived the pox?

Few would have disagreed that the arrival of the French Disease was an act of God. This was thus part of the nature of the disease and part of its contemporary perception. To invoke the image of St. Job and to exercise piety and charity might seem the characteristic reaction of a major group, the whole of Christendom. But northern Europe practiced a different religion after the Reformation. Did these changed affiliations of the new group affect its perceptions of the French Disease?

These issues are studied in the following chapters. Disputations in a faculty and a princely court make the allegiances of the disputants clear. When learned physicians are competing for the favours of a pope or ducal patron, their strategies are revealed. The death of a cardinal at the hands of his doctors highlights the dangers of administering mercury. The administration of a large hospital generates paperwork that reveals a great deal about the patients. All this accumulated experience formed contemporary perceptions of the disease, the answer to our quaestiones disputatae: what did people think and do about the disease?

Table of Contents

List of Plates, Figures, Tables
1 Syphilis and the French Disease
Introduction: medicine and history
Laboratory Medicine and the New Ontology of Infectious Disease
The Historiography of the Pox
The Textual Tradition
The Biographical and Bibliographical Traditions
The Historical Tradition
The Columbian Question
2 The Arrival of the French Disease in Renaissance Italy: initial impact and lay reactions
Chronicles and Mal Francese as a New Disease
Curable or Incurable?
Treatment of Mal Francese
Conclusion: the lack of an official response
3 God's Punishment: lay perceptions of the French Disease in Ferrara
Ercole d'Este and Girolamo Savonarola
Mal Francese Overtakes Ferrara
The Ailments of the Este Family
A Significant Silence
God's punishment for the sins of mankind
Mal Francese and sinful sexual activity
The disease of St Job
4 The Medical Dispute at the Court of Ferrara
Disputations and Disputes
The Circumstances of the Dispute
The Basics of Medicine
The Disputants
Nicolo Leoniceno
Sebastiano dall'Aquila
Coradinio Gilino
The Substance of the Dispute
Leoniceno and Hippcrates' diseases of summer
Dall'Aquila and Galen's elephantiasis
Gilino and the ignis sacer or persicus
Controversial Issues
5 The French Disease in Northern Europe: the case of Germany
Pox and Literature
6 The French Disease and the Papal Court
The Problem with the Pox
Causes and Contagion
Diseases, Signs and Symptoms
Treatment with Heat
Two Controversial Remedies
The "dry stove"
The Cardinal of Segorbe: a case study
7 The French Disease and the Hospitals for Incurables in Italy until 1530
Phase One: the Company of Divine Love and Mal Francese in Genoa, 1496-1504
Bologna and Ferrara
Phase Two: Incurabili hospitals and Mal Francese, 1515-1530
Incurabili Hospitals in South and Central Italy
Naples and Florence
Incurabili Hospitals in Northern Italy and the Catholic Reform Movement
8 The French Disease and the Incurabili Hospitals, 1530-1600: the case of Rome
Introduction: developing reactions to Mal Francese and the poor
The New Orders and the Incurabili Hospitals
The Construction Programmes
Size and Treatment
The Patients at San Giacomo, 1550-1600
Length of stay
San Giacomo Admissions and Patient Symptoms
Diseased body parts
Social Status of Applicants
Patients and their clothes
Geographical Origins of Patients at San Giacomo
9 Catching the Pox: contagion
Complexional Medicine
Sympathies and Subtleties
Contagion and Seeds
Contagion and Sympathy
10 The French Disease Grows Old
Epidemics and Empirics
What is Disease?
The Galenic model
Names, essences and quiddites
Is the Pox a Disease at All?
Classification of Disease
A New Disease?
The French Disease Changes
The Material Basis of Disease

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