A Medieval French Skeleton Is Rewriting the History of Syphilis
This terrible epidemic swept Europe in the 1400s
In the last days of the 1400s, a terrible epidemic swept through Europe. Men and women spiked sudden fevers. Their joints ached, and they broke out in rashes that ripened into bursting boils. Ulcers ate away at their faces, collapsing their noses and jaws, working down their throats and airways, making it impossible to eat or drink. Survivors were grossly disfigured. Unluckier victims died.
The infection sped across the borders of a politically fractured landscape, from France into Italy, on to Switzerland and Germany, and north to the British Isles, Scandinavia and Russia. The Holy Roman Emperor declared it a punishment from God. "Nothing could be more serious than this curse, this barbarian poison," an Italian historian wrote in 1495.
Out of the chaos, several things became clear. The infection seemed to start in the genitals. The pathogen seemed to travel along the paths of mercenary soldiers hired by warring rulers to attack their rivals, and with the informal households and sex workers that followed their campaigns. Though every nation associated the disorder with their enemies—the French called it the Neapolitan disease, the English called it the French disease, the Russians blamed the Poles and the Turks blamed Christians—there came a growing sense that one nation might be responsible.
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