Your RDA of Irony

And You Thought That It Was Only a Cold Sore

On this day in 1547, Henry VIII evidently won his wager with Francis I as to which of them would first die of syphilis. The smart money would have bet on the French king; he had the disease first. In fact, he may have indirectly infected Henry. A pioneer of venereal environmentalism, Francis used to recycle his mistresses. Among his many “friends” was Mary Boleyn. (You certainly are familiar with her younger sister.) When Francis and Mary parted ways, she returned to England and became Henry’s mistress. She may have brought back more than French fashion.

Syphilis was one of the most popular imports from the New World. Columbus traded it for smallpox. The Europeans certainly got the better of the deal. After all, no one enjoys getting smallpox. Although the Spanish first imported the venereal disease, people tended to associate it with France. (Something about Torquemada just isn’t erotic.) So the malady initially was known as the French Disease; an invading French army did introduce it to Italy in 1494. By 1503, English doctors needed a name for the disease; however, begrudging the French credit for anything, they preferred the term “the Great Pox.”

The disease finally acquired its formal name in 1530. Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician who dabbled in poetry, wrote an allegory of the disease attributing in origins to an amorous but incautious shepherd named Syphilus. The name, like the disease, caught on.

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