The French disease in the 15th century

The Chinese city of Wuhan has been indicated as the epicentre of the first outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, triggered – it is said – by the unseemly dietary practices of its inhabitants.

The same stigma, mutatis mutandis, befell the city of Naples when syphilis appeared at the end of the 15th century. The chronicles of the time associated the epidemic outbreak with the occupation of the capital of the Aragonese kingdom, in 1495, by the troops of the French king Charles VIII.

In 16th century, the disease declined with a consequent reduction in the mortality rate – after which it became an endemic disease that Europe lived with for four centuries. When it first appeared, the disease was referred to as morbus gallicus or mal napolitain; appellations that put the members of the two nations in a bad light. The strategy of ‘projection onto the other’, adopted by many authors of the time, was to point to prostitutes, who abounded in Naples, or Jews, who had also found refuge in Naples after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Finally, the theory of the American origin of the disease, still held today, seemed to offer an excellent solution to exonerate Europeans of all responsibility and reconfirm the literary topos of the lustful ‘bad savage’.

Around the middle of the 16th century, there was no shortage of famous physicians, such as Gabriele Falloppio, Leonardo Fioravanti and Andrea Cesalpino, who not only provided the theoretical framework for the etiopathogenesis of syphilis, but also hazarded various conjectures as to its causation. Once again, a merciless portrait of Naples is offered. According to Falloppio and Cesalpino, during the conflict the French and Spaniards learned the use of ‘biological weapons’ by poisoning the water and wine reserves with the corpses of soldiers who had died of syphilis. A practice already adopted in 1346 by the Mongol army, which laid siege to the Genoese fortress of Caffa, in the Crimea, not before catapulting the corpses of plague victims behind enemy walls. Fioravanti goes further, and says he is certain that the conflict had even caused a true anthropological involution, turning the men stationed in Babelic Naples into savages dedicated to anthropophagy.

[online 27/04/20]