The fact is, nobody knows where or how syphilis originated. In 1494, she made herself known, during the seige of Naples by King Charles VIII of France. Having taken ample advantage of the local sexual delicacies, which were ripe with what was called "the New Disease," Charles's mercenary army went back home to their various native countries defeated and infected. Presto chango: syphilis spread across Europe almost overnight.
That year - 1494 - has led some to speculate that syphilis was a New World disease, brought back by Columbus and his friends on their return from their maiden voyage. There is evidence that syphilis was present in pre-Columbian South America, but as the Conquistadors moved through new territories, European syphilis seemed just as brutally infectious to the natives as everything else we gave them. Some studies have shown that certain Old World populations had syphilis-like symptoms prior to 1494. It may simply be that the bacteria responsible for syphilis mutated in exactly the right ways to cause a new epidemic.
Early medicine looked to planetary influences to try to account for the disease. They pointed to a particular conjunction of planets that occurred in 1484 as the cause of a widespread poisoning of the earth, air, and waters, which showed as the symptoms of syphilis.
|1484, The Nativity of Syphilis, attributed to Albrecht Durer|
Getting syphilis was relatively easy in those days. Curing it was next door to impossible. Armed with herbal and dietary cures, early physicians were ill equipped to purge their patients of this insidious infection.
|Couple undergoing syphilis cure, early 16th century|
Image depicts doctors examining patient's urine to evaluate her health (upper right corner) and applying mercury-based salve to syphilitic pox (lower middle).
Eventually, people got used to the reality of syphilis, and the disease seemed to accommodate itself to European life. After the initial wave of infection, syphilis settled down and would now take years to kill, and sometimes years to show itself. It became known as a secret, insidious disease. The most beautiful, apparently untouched youth could in fact be a rotting corpse on the inside. You wouldn't know until you slept with him or her, and then it would be too late.
|"Deformitie, within may bee,|
Where outward Beauties we doe see."
From George Wither's Emblems, Ancient and Moderne, 1635
It's easy for us to forget that syphilis was once synonymous with casual sex.
Like many other phenomena, syphilis served to reinforce negative perceptions of women and women's sexuality.
This is my favourite (depicting Hitler, Hirohito, and V.D.):