Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Syphilis of the Duc de Vendôme

Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme earned his reputation as a capable general to Louis XIV; at court, he enjoyed the privileges of being a duke and peer. However, he would suffer throughout most of his life from a devastating disease: syphilis.

The British Journal of Dermatology and Syphilis has characterized his particular type of syphilis as bone syphilis. Twice did he undergo a severe mercury and heat treatment which left him horribly disfigured - without curing the disease. The Duc de Saint-Simon relates in horror how Vendôme publicly announced that he was leaving court to seek out treatment at the hands of the doctors - the memoirist makes it very clear that he feels such a disease should have prompted the general to leave quietly in shame. The treatments he underwent took place between 1698-1700 - three times in total. 

The first time he returned to Versailles, the mercury had already taken its obvious toll. Again, according to Saint-Simon:
"... (he) returned to the Court, with half his nose, his teeth out, and a physiognomy entirely changed, almost idiotic"
The doctors at the time thought him to be cured - at least temporarily. In sympathy for his altered looks, Louis XIV gave secret orders that no one was to mention or even allude to the physical effects of the treatment. Alas, the trials of the Duc de Vendôme were not done.

Louis Joseph had spent some time at his estate of Anet before returning to Versailles. However, as time went on, it became clear that the syphilis was slowly but certainly resurfacing. To the even greater outrage of Saint-Simon, Louis Joseph took another public leave but with no better success. As could be expected, his face was even worse off than the first time. 

Duc de Vendôme, 1706.jpg
Louis Joseph - the painter has tactfully
omitted the facial disfiguration 


His contemporaries did not hesitate to determine on the cause of Louis Joseph's illness. He was known to openly carry on homosexual affairs which (at the time) was thought to be tell-tale sign of a debauched lifestyle. A great deal of people believed that the disease was a consequence of it - and therefore not to be pitied. However, there is something to suggest that Louis Joseph did not come by the disease through a love affair: both he and his brother suffered from the disease. While the illness was not uncommon at the time it is worth considering whether their mother may have been infected.

Claude Quétel - author of A History of Syphilis - supports the explanation of contraction through sexual activities.

The disease had an impact on every aspect of his life. Besides the disdain he had to endure through the likes of Saint-Simon, his military career suffered too. During his campaign in Spain, Louis Joseph was granted permission to return to France to undergo further treatment. Despite his numerous attempts, the Duc de Vendôme would never be completely rid of his disease. 

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