Theory and Practice from the Medieval to the Modern
Sharon T. Strocchia Caring for the ‘Incurable’ in Renaissance Pox Hospitals
The eruption of syphilis onto the European stage in the mid-1490s prompted a public health crisis of the first order. The disease itself was known by a variety of names – the ‘French disease’, the ‘Neapolitan sick- ness’, ‘French scabies’, the ‘Spanish sickness’, or more simply the pox – all of which blamed other, neighbouring peoples as the source of contamina- tion.1 Learned physicians steeped in Latin Galenism proposed dif ferent causal explanations for this new disease, ranging from corrupt air, poor health regimens, and divine punishment to infection by sexual contact.2 As syphilis became more widely recognized as a venereal disease by the 1520s, it also generated a range of moralizing attitudes that dif fered from place to place.3 Yet one of the most consistent responses to this new threat by public health authorities and charitable organizations across Europe was the creation of specialized hospitals to treat poor pox victims. Major Italian cities saw a rash of new hospital foundations between 1499 and 1526 aimed at assisting paupers suf fering from what was initially thought to be an 1 Claude Quétel, History of Syphilis, trans. Judith Braddock and Brian Pike (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 11–16. In this essay, I use the terms French disease, pox and syphilis interchangeably. 2 Jon Arrizabalaga, ‘Medical Responses to the “French Disease” in Europe at the Turn of the Sixteenth Century’, in Kevin Siena, ed., Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and...
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