Quite how the name ‘syphilis’ came in to common usage is a story as long as the history of the disease. The origin of the disease itself has been debated since the late 15th century. Its appearance has at one time or another been attributed to the Moors, the Beggards (a mystic sect), God’s Anger, Spaniards mixing lepers’ blood with Greek wine, the result of the coupling of a leprous knight and a courtesan (or of men and monkeys), or merely as a new form of plague or leprosy.
Eventually a consensus of sorts was reached that the conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter in the sign of Scorpio and the house of Mars on 25th November 1484 was the certain cause of the disease. Not long after this, the debate moved on to whether or not the disease had in fact been transferred from the Americas to Europe aboard Spanish ships during the voyages of Columbus.
From the 1490s to the present day the disease has been referred to by hundreds of different titles. The full history of the changing terminology of this disease is a subject too lengthy to fully cover in a blog post. What follows is the (extremely) short version. Prepare for sweeping generalisations, leaps in time and broad strokes ahead.
The early years – The blame game
In the early years (roughly 15th-16th century) of the documentation and distribution of literature and knowledge around syphilis, it was referred to by a vast number of different names. All followed much the same pattern: find out who gave it to you – name it after them. There are quite a few mentioned in this passage from ‘The History of Syphilis‘ by Claude Quétel:-
“Each newly affected country lost no time naming the new disease after the neighbour which it suspected, usually with good reason, of having been the source of the contamination. The following gives an idea of the variety of the names: the Muskovites referred to it as the Polish sickness, the Poles as the German sickness, and the Germans as the French sickness – a term of which the English also approved (French pox) as did the Italians (which presented certain difficulties). The Flemish and the Dutch called it ‘the Spanish sickness’, as did the inhabitants of North-west Africa. The Portuguese called it the Castilian sickness’, whilst the Japanese and the people’s of the East Indies came to call it ‘the Portuguese sickness’. Only the Spanish, oddly enough, did not call it anything”†
This naming convention could also become quite local with various towns in France blaming their neighbours and giving rise to names such as ‘peste de Bordeau’, ‘Les fiebvres Sainct-Job’, ‘mal du Carrefour de Poitiers’ and so on. Eventually Europe, as a continent, largely settled on blaming the French and many hundreds of books and pamphlets were published using variations on the name ‘Morbus Gallicus‘: the French Disease.
The middle years – The shame game
As time passed and a greater emphasis was placed on diagnosis and cures, the focus on local or national level blame for the suffering caused by syphilis was replaced by a move towards shaming those who had contracted this awful disease. It is at this time (very roughly late 17th-18th century) the term ‘Lues Venerea‘ becomes over time, in a still crowded field, the most commonly used term for the disease: the literal Bane or Blight of Venus.
The sufferers of lues became pariahs of society, shunned as victims of a righteous punishment for their undoubtedly wicked behaviour. This leads to the rise of the notion of poisonous women, an increased vilification and fear of women (almost never men) involved in prostitution, and being afflicted by the disease being seen as a sure sign of licentious behaviour. This sexual stigma carried by the disease ensured that sufferers were presumed to be neither virtuous nor wholesome.
The truth was, as is usual, far more prosaic. You were as likely to be afflicted with a case of lues from a simple frolic as from any other more degenerate encounter:-
The latter years – The name game
While the name syphilis had been used sporadically throughout the preceding three hundred years it was not until the 19th century that the name began to gain real traction and in time became the only term used for the disease. It was coined in one of the very earliest documents produced on the disease: Giralamo Fracastoro’s “Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus” (Syphilis, or the French Disease). Produced in 1530 it takes the form of an epic poem and relates the tale of the eponymous shepherd ‘Syphilis‘ who turns his back on the Sun God, leads the people in worship of the earthly King, and is struck down with a ferocious sickness in retaliation:-
“Straightaway an unknown pollution was born to flood the blasphemous earth. The first man to display disfiguring sores over the body was Syphilis, who by the shedding of blood instituted divine rights in the king’s honour and altars in the mountains sacred to him; he was the first to experience sleepless nights and tortured limbs, and from this first victim the disease derived its name and from him the farmers called the sickness Syphilis. And soon the evil plague had spread through all the cities among the commons, nor had it spared in its savagery even the king himself”‡ Translation of latin text taken from ‘Fracastoro’s Syphilis‘ by Geoffrey Eatough.
The source of Fracostoro’s inspiration for the naming of his title character has never been satisfactorily pinned down: a character named Sypilus (sic) appearing in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is likely but not certain; Virgil’s Aeneid is cited as another possible source.
What remains is the unique case of the only human disease commonly known by a name taken from poetic literature.
This post appears as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project to have ca. 250 rare books on syphilis held in Special Collections catalogued to international standards to aid academic research. We will also be creating a web-based teaching resource and hosting an event to promote this collection.
If you would like to know more about the project, or are interested in taking part in any upcoming event, just get in touch (sonny.maley[at]glasgow.ac.uk). There will be further blogs on the progress of the project over the coming months.
†Claude Quétel History of syphilis (Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1990)
‡Geoffrey Eatough Fracastoro’s Syphilis / introduction, text, translation and notes with a computer-generated word index (Francis Cairns, 1984)