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The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe.

By Jon Arrizabalaga, John Henderson, and Roger French (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997. xv plus 352pp.).

During the 1490's, northern Italy was struck with a series of terrifying events which the Florentine historian Guicciardini would later characterize as the calamity of Italy: Charles VIII of France invaded in 1494; the winter of 14956 was intensely cold; there were floods, earthquakes, and a serious famine. In the midst of this, a new disease broke out in Italy, reportedly arriving with the French troops in Naples in 1494. It covered the body with abscesses and racked it with pain. Eventually the malady filled the streets with beggars, for, unlike the plague, it killed slowly. It changed medicine, leading to new ideas and institutions, producing a quantity of medical literature second only to that of the plague. Contemporaries usually agreed that the disease originated among some other ethnic or national group: the Italians blamed it on the French, the French on the Neapolitans, and most everyone blamed it ultimately on the New World. Gruner's eighteenth-century study argued the disease was spread by the Marrani, his term for the Moslems and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The disease challenged learned physicians to answer difficult questions. Did the ancients know about the disease or was it really new? How could a disease so obviously contagious be integrated into a rational medicine that stressed temperamental imbalances as the cause of disease? And how could learned medicine account for the fact that two of the most popular remedies, guaiacum wood imported from the New World and mercury salves, originated among unschooled empirics?

Largely ignoring the debate about origins, The Great Pox focuses on Renaissance reactions to the French Disease, mainly in Italy, during the century after its arrival. The authors frequently return to a single query: what made a particular reaction characteristic of the group that displayed it? Two chapters highlight the arrival of the disease at the court of Duke Ercole d'Este in Ferrara. D'Este's relationship with the Florentine visionary Girolamo Savonarola shows how the Duke saw the illness as a divine judgment, as did the majority of his contemporaries. The authors also provide a highly contextualized reinterpretation of Leoniceno's work on the pox, arguing that the debate was not between Leoniceno the humanist and his scholastic opponents, but rather between Latin Humanists and Hellenists, all of whom competed for patronage and patients in court circles. Two chapters detail the main institutional response to the disease, the Hospitals for Incurables that sprung up across Italy, encouraged by the pope and largely modeled after the one founded by the Company of Divine Love in Genoa in 1497. While the authors do not downplay the charitable motives stressed in hagiographical accounts of these establishments, they argue that the stench of diseased beggars aroused as much disgust as charity in contemporaries and led to a hardening of official attitudes toward the poor during the Renaissance, particularly since this illness could be closely associated with sexual immorality and prostitution. The formal disputation was an important way in which contemporaries formulated knowledge about the disease, and the authors analyze disputations at the Papal court and at the University of Leipzig. They show that the disputants, speaking as learned professors, as objects of court patronage, and as physicians competing for patients, drew upon theological, astrological, humanistic, and scholastic sources to construct an understanding of the disease and its treatment.

This book is not a history of syphilis, a term which was not used to describe the disease until Fracastoro's poem of 1530, and the authors are not interested in the legitimacy of the Columbian question, or in using disease descriptions and paleopathology to find evidence of treponema pallidum after, or before, 1494. Instead, The Great Pox is a model for writing the social history of a disease, painting a rich and complex picture of Renaissance understandings and experiences of the illness.

Brian Nance Coastal Carolina University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Nance, Brian
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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