How Syphilis Became Known as ‘French Disease’

It’s hard to trace the origin of diseases even for us — imagine having to do it during the Renaissance.

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A part of Rembrandt van Rijn’s portrait of fellow Dutch painter Gerard de Lairesse, here shown at age 25 with the ‘saddle nose’ — a characteristic complication of congenial syphilis (which a person is born with after being infected with the disease while still in the womb).

The miraculous discovery of penicillin in 1928 helped cure many of mankind’s ailments, with syphilis numbering among them. Considering one of its previous cures was an effective poisoning of the victim with mercury in the hopes that the disease would die faster — which was survivable, though not without severe damage — it might serve as a hopeful reminder that even with a disease with its ‘cure’ being almost more devastating that giving up, the future could hold a true and safe cure.

No longer do people infected with the std have to suffer as Philip I, landgrave of Hesse, had to suffer after catching it as a consequence of his breaking of his marital vows. Perhaps it was this very fact that had caused him to see it as a punishment from God, and prompted him to ask Martin Luther if it shouldn’t be possible for him to take a second wife. To his credit, at least Henry VIII of England had made that sort of an attempt first.

The Presumed Origin of the Disease

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, the Genoese navigator and explorer, famously landed in the Americas under the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. While his men brought smallpox to the New World, the New World may have given them a little something to take home in return. It is generally assumed that syphilis came from the Americas, and Columbus’s men would then spread it around a few niche places on the Mediterranean. It would be most likely that places which they would have frequented (specifically referring to prostitution in this case) would have also been known to merchants. Merchants of course closely tied to the Italian Peninsula, so we needn’t stay in the Iberian one for too long — and neither did the disease.

Due to the marks appearing on the skin of the infected person, syphilis was initially assumed to be a form of either pox or plague. And though in later years people would, in this pre-microscope age, presume that the disease crept into sheets shared between two bedmates and as a result of that spread to the other person (and potentially to a spouse of a promiscuous individual). Considering the fact that syphilis is an std, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Before all of this, as an illness potentially of a pox of plague nature, syphilis would be seen as something which can spread in a similar manner. And thus, the eventuality that a large and particular group of people would come to be the main carriers and thus spreaders was inevitable.

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Benet Mercadé’s 19th century depiction of Christopher Columbus and his son Diego at the monastery of Santa María de la Rábida.

Charles VIII of France and the Italian Peninsula

Charles VIII of France was a highly ambitious king. He had grown up fond of stories of chivalry, and naturally he was with his short statue, hunchback, and oversized feet (as well as reportedly scary/deformed facial features) an unlikely candidate to gain a knightly reputation through traditional sports such as jousting. Thus he would have sought glory through the use of an army, and he was susceptible to flattery as a result of his ambitions. In strode the problems present during the age of the second Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Italy was at this time made up of different states in their own right, most famously the Republic of Venice, Florence ruled by the Medici family, and the Papal States with Rome as its capital. For the purposes of Charles VIII, we’ll concentrate on his claim to the Kingdom of Naples.

Milan as a city being in the south of Italy, it should come as no surprise that any claimant to the kingdom would have to travel either by ship or by land. Since storms were devastating to ships and it would in any case require a large fleet to ferry soldiers across, it was far easier to just march south, with the added bonus of striking fear into the hearts of any would-be opponents though show of force. Charles VIII’s most striking episode came when he intended to pass through Rome. Initially, Pope Alexander VI refused his army entry, but Charles VIII had a cannon shoot a hole through the ancient walls of Rome and the pope would cave to this pressure. It didn’t even go badly for the pope when the king of France entered the city.

Charles VIII ordered his men to refrain from looting, pillaging, and rape. On pain of death, they were to leave the citizens of the ancient city alone, and to give credence to his command, he even had gallows constructed to make an example of any future disobedience. However good his intentions, he could not stop his army from the usual behaviour associated with conquerors and soldier rabble alike, and thus even the mother of the pope’s four favourite children (including the famous Cesare Borgia, the model for Machiavelli’s Prince) would be humiliated by being robbed in her villa. Charles VIII might have come to his contemporary Holy Father by attempting to kiss the papal shoe, but his soldiers ran rampant wherever they thought they could get away with it.

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Francesco Granacci’s depiction of Charles VIII’s troops entering Florence on November 17th, 1494.

After Charles VIII and his army left at last for Naples, it can be assumed that they’d already picked up and spread some syphilis around. The aforementioned Cesare Borgia even caught it, apparently as well as his father the pope’s rival Cardinal Della Rovere (the future pope Julius II), whom Cesare would later meet again in Avignon. While staying in Naples, the disease rapidly spread among the soldiers, thus becoming predominantly associated with the French on that basis alone. Matters were to get even worse, considering the initial spread was not to be contained to Italy. Before long, the whole of Europe had to deal with the consequences of a disease which was rapidly discovered to find its origins in the literal sense of ‘sleeping’ with another person who had been infected.

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Albrecht Dürer’s Syphilitic Man is thought to be the first depiction of a person with syphilis. This figure is believed to be a Landsknecht.

Even Cesare Borgia’s prominent physician couldn’t figure out much of a cure, but perhaps this was for the better, considering the fact that the mercury cure which came later would significantly damage the person subjected to it. Not that the disease itself was much kinder, for it had a clear outward appearance which would often concentrate around a person’s nose (and mouth) to scar them for the rest of this lives. Notwithstanding usual smallpox scarring, syphilis would scar a person in such a targeted area that it would be plain for all to see what they had done that had placed them in their position of illness. Perhaps it is a relief to know that wives were aware that their husbands’ cheating could make them deathly ill, and thus could on those grounds refuse to sleep with them in a lot of cases. In fact, my obligatory mention of Emperor Charles V is warranted in this case because he refused to allow his son-in-law the duke of Parma to sleep with his wife (Charles V’s daughter) after his having contracted the ‘French pox’.

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Laura / L.E. van Altfeldt

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🇳🇱 | Stuck in the sixteenth century, I write of history and occasionally sprinkle life with a little fantasy.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Laura / L.E. van Altfeldt

Written by

🇳🇱 | Stuck in the sixteenth century, I write of history and occasionally sprinkle life with a little fantasy.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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