Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Medieval syphilis

For a while archaeological evidence has been accumulating for the presence of syphilis in medieval society in contradiction of the widely held belief that the disease came to Europe following Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492, and first made itself apparent at the siege of Naples a couple of years later.

This evidence is reviewed and other possible evidence included from literary and visual sources in a recent article in The Conversation..  This appears to make a sensible case. It can be read at Manuscripts and art support archaeological evidence that syphilis was in Europe long before explorers could have brought it home from the Americas

I was particularly struck by the author’s suggestion that the death of King Edward IV in 1483 could be attributed to syphilis. I had not seen this idea before, although the cause of that monarch’s seemingly sudden and unexpected demise has attracted speculation for a long time, from a chill that turned to pneumonia, food poisoning and appendicitis. Syphilis would perhaps fit in with what we know of the King’s private life, especially if combined with the well-attested effects of over-indulgence in food and drink, and maybe the argument of his in many ways irrational move against Clarence in 1477-8 fits in with the mental effects of ventral disease. Whether of not this was the cause of his death it does help to carry forward discussion about the events of 1483.

1 comment:

John R Ramsden said...

Wasn't Syphilis once called the French Pox? Sounds like there's a pretty easy way, in principle, to check whether it was in Europe before Columbus's (re)discovery of the New World, assuming tertiary syphilis can leave traces in bones.

The Paris catacombs contain bones from millions of people over several centuries. (If it was up to me, I'd clear out the lot and grind them down for fertilizer, as I think it is morbid and a huge waste of space and valuable phosphate to preserve them all like this.)

But if any of these bones date back to before 1492, they could be examined for traces of syphilis. It would be even easier if some or all are sorted into periods, rather than being hopelessly jumbled in their ages as I suspect most probably are. But even in the latter event, a reasonable age estimate for individual bones could be obtained by carbon dating.

If the Paris bones are too recent, then I think there are other catacombs in Rome and Naples, and probably other cities, not to mention family vaults in numerous parish churches containing remains from several centuries.

John R Ramsden