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  • Cannibalism and Syphilis December 16, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Syphilis (unless, of course, you have the misfortune to be a sufferer) is one of the most interesting of illnesses. Historians still, for example, argue about whether it crossed from Europe to the Americas or whether, on the contrary, it was a gift from the New to the Old World: the balance of opinion seems to be in favour of the former. There were also the fascinating contemporary debates about what caused this disease when it came to the attention of the medical authorities at the very end of the fifteenth century.

    Naturally it was a case of tot homines, tot sententiae. Theories for the origins of the illness included the evil conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter; the mixing of leper’s blood with wine; the mating of humans with monkeys; Moorish biological warfare; or even the result of a prostitute and a leper having sex – leperosy and syphilis have, of course, several points in common.

    However, one of the most interesting theories came from Leonardo Fioravanti (obit 1588). Fioravanti – the following is based on a fine essay by William Eamon – was convinced that syphilis had been caused by humans devouring human flesh: a strange early modern precursor of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. He was probably insprired by the rumours that troops had eaten human flesh at Naples in 1494.

    It so happened that because of the great war between the Spanish and the French in that kingdom, which was exceedingly prolonged, at length the people began to lack provisions, and especially meat. Things became so bad that the sutlers who went into the camps of both sides to trade in victuals began secretly to’ take the flesh from the bodies of the dead and use it to make certain dishes, such as soups, pies, roasted delicacies, and similar things, which were an entirely new fashion in eating. During this time they would go back and forth frequently with such secrecy that you would never be able to discover it. Thus the armies of both sides, having so many times eaten human flesh, began to be polluted in such a way that not a single man remained who was not full of sores and pains, and the majority became completely bald. The poor Frenchmen, seeing that their country was fouled by the disease, began to say among themselves that the Neapolitans made the disease come, whereas in truth they themselves had been the cause of it, but they did not know how, nor would they ever have imagined that on account of such an injury so much misfortune could follow. (trans Eamon)

    Fioravanti being a systematic sort decided to put his intuitions to the test and demonstrate the origins of syphilis.

    The first experiment I did was this: I took a piglet and raised it in my house, and in all of its food I added some pork fat, whereupon in a few days the piglet became completely bald and full of sores, by being fed from his like. Not content with this single proof, I decided to make a second. So I took a puppy, and put it in a cage and fed it only the flesh of a dog for two months, whereupon the poor puppy became completely full of sores, and bald, and full of pains, and complained like a human. The same experiment I tried in a sparrow hawk, a bird of prey, which I fed with flesh of its kind and produced the same effect I had seen in the other animals. And with such experiments I came to understand that eating the flesh of the same species generates that corruption or disease. (trans Eamon)

    Beachcombing and his infant hoodlum friends used to find it extraordinarily amusing to feed chicken flavoured crisps to chickens, but the chickens prospered. Certainly no feathers fell out.

    Any other bizarre explanations for syphilis: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    30 Dec 2011: JCE writes in with this: ‘While I can’t speak to the somewhat dubious experiments of Signor Fioravanti and am unsure of his theory (there weren’t a flood of new cases of syphilis among the survivors of the siege of Leningrad, were there? Wait – Stalin: maybe there were), I note that the symptoms of the inhabitants of the besieged city of his tale are very similar to those of scurvy, which one might expect in an encircled city deprived of fresh fruits and greenstuffs. As for the hair loss, while I am uncertain of its association with vitamin C deficiency, I believe it may be related to a lack of protein, which of course is also to be expected. Might the problem with the afflicted have been that they didn’t eat enough man-pies?’ Then JJ has this on the origins of syphilis, a hugely controversial topic, from Rivers Ran East by Clark: ‘It has been established that prior to the discovery of America and the ancient Incas, syphilis was unknown in Europe. Nearby pre-Columbian Incan graves were at the moment producing – under the spades of a Lima scientist – the bones of syphilitics, due, he believed to the Andean Indians’ working with llamas and the ancient instinct for sodomy. Very likely humanity owes this curse to Pizarro and the Andean llama. There was a national law which forbade any male Indian from travelling with a herd of llamas on a trip exceeding twenty-four hours, unless a woman went along. And since all available women were working shifts in the mines, the llama trains were stalled indefinitely.’ Thanks JCE and JJ!