Syphilis In Measure For Measure Syphilis in Renaissance Europe and in Shakespeares Measure for Measure Bibliography to venereal disease appear as early in the second scene of Shakespeares Measure for Measure. Syphilis, the primary and most horrible of venereal diseases, ran rampant in Shakespeares time. By giving a brief history of the disease in Renaissance Europe one can gain a better understanding of the disease which will provide a greater insight into the play which would have gone unknown. This brief history will include, the severity of the disease in fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, believed origins and symptoms of the time period, and methods of curing or combating the disease. By reading and analyzing passages referring to syphilis in Measure for Measure it is clear that Shakespeare himself believed in most of the truths established by the poet and physician Fracastor.
Fracastor was the primary source and influence regarding studies of syphilis in Renaissance Europe. The disease we now commonly identify as syphilis is believed to have arrived in Europe for the first time in the late fifteenth century. Though there are few statistics from that period available to prove such an argument, there is plenty of evidence that supports that the disease suddenly emerged in great abundance during this time period. It is also believed that syphilis was much more severe then, than it has ever been since. Zinsser writes in his book, Rats, Lice, and History that: There is little doubt that when syphilis first appeared in epidemic form, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was a far more virulent, acute, and factual condition than it is now (Rosebury 23).
The first time syphilis, called evil pocks at the time, was mentioned in print occurred on August 7, 1495 in the Edict of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. In this document syphilis was believed to be a punishment sent from God for blasphemy and was described as something which had never occurred before nor been heard of within the memory of man (Rosebury 24). Between the years 1495 and 1498 there were a total of nine similar documents that emerged through out Western Europe. In 1530 Fracastor, a poet and physician, published the poem, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus, translated Syphilis or the French Disease. The main character was a shepherd in Hispaniola named Syphilis.
Syphilis caught the disease for disrespecting the Gods. At the time Fracastor believed in the previous documents, but would provide his own original ideas concerning how the disease reached Europe. He also alluded to possible treatments, that Shakespeare will later use in his plays. Fracastor used the name syphilis for both the main character and the disease he contracted. However, the name of the disease continued to be known as the French disease.
It was not until the 1850s, more than three centuries after Fracastors poem, that the disease was called syphilis. Fracastors poem grew widely popular in Western Europe, and was believed to be mostly factual at the time. It might seem odd that a fictional poem with fictional characters would be widely regarded as truth, but under the extreme circumstances of the sixteenth century syphilis epidemic it makes perfect sense. Syphilis had caused terror in the hearts of the people in the sixteenth century due to its rapid spread. Physicians seemed helpless to cure it. No one could do anything, but believe in what Fracastor wrote.
In the poem Fracastor had answers concerning its origin, symptoms, and cure for this new disease. He went along with the common belief that it appeared in the French army before Naples around the year 1495. From France, and justly took from France his name, (Rosebury 31). This quote provides the evidence concerning syphilis former name, The French Disease. He also discussed how he believed that it originated in America, and was brought back with Columbus and his men.
This was the popular view of the day, and many researchers still find truth in it. What Fracastor truly believed, at the time, was that the positions of the planets influenced the outbreak of the disease. He believed that they lined up in such a way that provided great conditions for the emergence of the disease. In the poem Fracastor also states that the disease had very often a extra-genital origin (Rosebury 34). An observation he will later discuss further.
He also goes on to discuss possible treatments that became popular in the sixteenth century, which also appeared in some of Shakespeares plays. He recommends to get plenty of exercise, and to avoid wine and fish. He also includes using mercury, a very popular method of controlling the disease, which will be discussed later in detail. Sixteen years later Fracastor published his serious medical work, Contagion, regarding syphilis. In this work he describes the disease in thorough and convincing detail.
In this very influential work he presents the modern idea that the transmission of syphilis and many other diseases infect their victim through seeds or germs. He also makes the argument that syphilis is often transmitted by sexual intercourse. Fracastor could not, however, dismiss his old beliefs that the planets played a role in the outbreak of the disease. It is because of this constant, and somewhat illogical, belief that makes it obvious that Fracastor was not a radical. Another error Fracastor made in Contagion was that he believed that late syphilis, when the symptoms are at their worse, is when the disease is contagious.
The opposite is proven today. This may seem like a small error or detail, but this error caused many people great pain and anguish. In the next section I will I will go into full detail concerning the painful and from todays perspective, archaic methods of combating this disease. At the time of the syphilis epidemic in Renaissance Europe, there were many treatments that were attempted and used regularly. The most common of these methods or cures were compounds of mercury.
It should be known that mercury is one of the most harmful of elements to the human body. However, this information was not available or known in Shakespearean times. In the past, prior to Renaissance Europe, Arabs commonly used mercury to combat scabies and yaws. The sores and lesions from syphilis look very similar to the sores caused by scabies. Hence, when syphilis started to destroy most of Western Europe, it was the most practical of solutions.
Arsenic was also used as therapy around 1530, but this treatment was rarely used after it became known that its toxic effects were fatal. For the next four hundred years mercury was essentially the only method of combating syphilis. Even though, it was not the cure there were no other alternatives to be used. Mercury was given to the patient in four different ways: orally, topically, by salves, and by fumigation. Mercury taken orally was absorbed internally. When given topically, mercury would be rubbed several times a day to different parts of the body.
The metal would be absorbed into the skin. Us …