August 6, 1997

The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe

Author Affiliations

Baylor College of Medicine Sugar Land, Tex


by Jon Arrizabalaga. John Henderson, and Roger French, 352 pp, with illus, $35, ISBN 0-300-06934-0, New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1997.

JAMA. 1997;278(5):440. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550050104045

In 1495 syphilis hit Renaissance Europe like a meteorite. It began in a besieged Naples amidst invading French troops under Charles VIII, which included soldiers of fortune from many European countries, mostly Spaniards. The blaming game started immediately. The Italians acted first, and called it morbus gallicus, the "French Disease." The French retaliated with "Neapolitan Disease." Then accusatory eyes turned to the Iberian Peninsula, not only because the Jews (as well as the Moors) had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and became handy scapegoats, but especially because of the Columbus crew. The crew left Palos Bay in August 1492, eventually landed in some Caribbean islands (mainly Hispaniola and Cuba), and returned to Palos in March 1493. That group of travelers are considered, by those who believe in the Columbian theory, responsible for the syphilization of Europe.

So syphilis (which still had no name but the vernacular Great Pox) probably