The French Disease

  • J. David Oriel


The appearance of syphilis was an epoch-making event, and doctors schooled in Galenic and Arabian medicine were ill-prepared for it. The disease struck in 1493. Cases were already occurring throughout Western Europe when a major epidemic broke out in the army that the French King Charles VIII led against the Kingdom of Naples in 1494. Charles, described by the historian H.A.L. Fisher as “a young and licentious hunchback of doubtful sanity”, led a cosmopolitan force of about 30 000 men, mostly mercenaries and including some from Spain; among the raggle-taggle group of civilians accompanying the army were hundreds of prostitutes. Naples was held by King Alphonso II with the help of Spanish mercenaries sent by Ferdinand and Isabella. At first Charles was successful and he captured Naples early in 1495 without difficulty, but this success was completely reversed when an Italian league was formed to eject the invaders. To make matters worse, prostitution and debauchery on both sides were followed by a widespread outbreak of the new disease. The Italian surgeon Marcellus Cum anus (fl. 1495), who was working in Naples, later claimed to have seen the earliest cases. Charles was forced to withdraw from Italy and discharge his soldiers, who spread the disease far and wide as they returned to their own countries. The King himself died of it in 1498.


Venereal Disease Genital Lesion Secondary Syphilis Primary Syphilis Late Syphilis 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. David Oriel
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of MedicineUniversity College and Middlesex School of MedicineLondonUK

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