Friday, 23 January 2015

Sickness of Shame: Syphilis

Syphilis was one of those diseases one did not talk about but everyone knew existed. Being sexually transferred it was tabu; quite odd considering that both adultery and liaisons were not only common but accepted. Throughout Europe syphilis also had another name though it is unlikely that it would have won favour with the French: the French pox. In France it was referred to as the "Neapolitan disease".

Syphilis was a particularly nasty type of illness which was impossible to hide from the outside world. Patients suffered first from sore ulcers in the genital area which could later evolve into blindness, paralysis and it was far from uncommon that the nose simply caved into the face. This latter symptom meant the rise of artificial noses which could be enamelled or painted to look as much like the original as possible.

Artificial nose
During the 17th century the doctors relied on mercury as the sole "treatment" for this dreadful disease - it need hardly be said that they had little success. Instead their patients suffered mercury poisonings which included uncontrolled salivation. This treatment gave rise to the saying: "A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury". To make matters worse syphilis was a slow killer.

Being sexually transferred it was immediately assumed that anyone who fell victim to the disease led a life of debauchery. In some cases that was indeed the case and since the noblemen of France has never scorned the society of Paris' finer brothels it is very likely. But, there were some who led completely decent lives and who had merely been infected through their (cheating) spouse. The court in which Louis XIV grew up in definitely saw syphilis as a sign of god's wrath for a misspent life. The mother of the unfortunate Fouquet made it clear that she considered the two aspects definitely intertwined.

A so-called "syphilis syringe" used for administering mercury to the wounds
Syphilis was considered not only a disease of debauchery but also one that followed armies like flies after a dung pile. According to Voltaire, in a battle between two forces of 30.000 men each, 20.000 had syphilis.
By 1736 the problem had become so imminent that Jean Astruc, royal physician to Louis XV, wrote one of his greater works on the disease.

Sadly for the courtiers of Versailles, syphilis remained an incurable disease until 1928.

Courtiers who suffered from syphilis:

Francois Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti
Henriette de Bourbon-Conti, Duchesse de Chartres
Louis Joseph, Duc de Vêndome
The Duchesse d'Uzès

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