The Bard & The Bath

John Wilmot having died of syphilis, I thought some snippets on the treatment of this disease in early modern England might prove interesting. The disease, contracted through sexual intercourse, was believed to have been transmitted by the French (although Columbus was often blamed for having brought it over from the newly-found America). Much more virulent than today, syphilis came to be widely-feared.  Fracastoro’s Syphilidis sive de Morbo Gallico (1525) graphically illustrates just how disfiguring the disease could be:

[U]nsightly sores broke out over all the body and made the face horrifyingly ugly, and disfigured the breast by their foul presence: the disease took on a new aspect: pustules with the shape of an acorn-cup and rotten with thick slime, which soon afterwards gaped wide open and flowed with a discharge like mucous and putrid blood.  Moreover the disease gnawed deep and burrowed into the inmost parts, feeding on its victims’ bodies with pitiable results: for on quite frequent occasions we ourselves have seen limbs stripped of their flesh and the bones rough with scales, and mouths eaten away yawn open in hideous gape while the throat produced feeble sounds.



In early modern Europe, the use of Mercury was a widespread method of treating Syphilis. It was administered to the patient in four different ways: orally, topically, by ointment, and by fumigation.  Mercury taken orally was absorbed internally. When used topically, mercury would be applied several times a day to different parts of the body and the metal absorbed into the skin. Mercury ointment adhered to the same principle, but the metal was kept in continuous close contact with the skin. Treatment by fumigation was the least effective and most gruelling mercury therapy. The unfortunate patient was placed in a closed box, or bath tub, with only the head visible. A fire was then lit underneath the cabinet, raising the temperature and causing the mercury to vaporize. This method was not popular since it was such an agonising ordeal and did little to treat the disease effectively. All processes were intended to accomplish the same goal; to increase the amount of saliva produced by the patient, since it was believed saliva carried away the venereal poison. Three pints of saliva a day was considered a good prognosis, and in the cases when the patient would not produce the required amount of saliva, more mercury was used.

The French doctor Ambroise Paré reports in his treatise on the Lues venera that sweating treatments involving mercury vapour

infect and corrupt their venomous contagion, the braine and lungs, by whom they are primarily and fully received, when the patients during the residue of their lives have stinking breaths. Yea many while they have beene thus handled, have beene taken hold of by a convulsion and trembling of their heads, hands & legges, with a deafenesse, apoplexie, and lastly miserable death.

Mercury caused sweating and salivation. Sores developed on the mouth, tongue and throat. Teeth and hair often fell out. In Book Two of Pantagruel (1532) Rabelais depicts a pox victim in the advanced stages of the disease, his face glistening with corrosive mercurial ointment, his teeth chattering, his mouth foaming.

The French Pox appeared widely on the London stage; it is referenced in numerous plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries and according to some scholarship, Shakespeare’s 154th Sonnet may in fact be an autobiographical reference to his own enforced agonies at the hands of the mercury quacks:

 Sonnet 154

The little love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
While many nymphs, that vowed chaste life to keep,
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


  • December 7, 2009 - 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I have just discovered my delicate constitution upon viewing the above mentioned images.

    Liam I might find some snippets on Gout, just for you.

    Twaza, your comments are most illuminating & helpful.

    Many thanks to you both.

  • December 7, 2009 - 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting, and beautiful illustrations. Thanks.

    Just one comment about changes in meaning of disease names, and perception of diseases.

    In 1525 they were not able to distinguish what we now call syphilis from other venereal, skin, and neurological diseases. Syphilis (and leprosy) was used for a whole clinicful of diseases.

    The second illustration looks more like staphylococcal disease than syphilis, and the description “the disease gnawed deep and burrowed into the inmost parts” sounds like necrotising fasciitis (caused staphylococcus and other bacteria).

    If Dantyballerina does not have a delicate stomach, she might be curious to see modern illustrations of:


    staphylococcal infection

    necrotising fasciitis

  • December 4, 2009 - 4:02 pm | Permalink

    THREE PINTS of saliva a day?

    Not that I’ve ever suffered the French Pox myself (my own personal historically significant illness is The Gout), but still — thank the Lord (and Dr. Flemming) for antibiotics.

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