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 its origins to an amorous but incautious shepherd named Syphilus. The name, like the disease, caught on.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    And all this time I thought it was named for an overly-emotional peasant: “Oh, that man is driving me MAD,” sighed Phyllis.

  2. Syphilus was an overly emotive peasant.

  3. Leah says:

    Oh, I think the British loved calling it the French Pox. Now, who knows what the French called “la malaise Anglaise”? Hint: James I/VI had it, and it wasn’t catching.

  4. Leah:

    Are you referring to the physical education at Eton?

    If so, the “curriculum” is not limited to English public schools or the Yale Drama School.

    France’s Henri III certainly had “la malaise Anglaise” as did Louis XIII; and neither one of them were big fans of Ivor Novello.

  5. Ivor Novello?!!!?

    My allusion to an once popular British songwriter and actor amazes even me. I may be the campiest heterosexual on earth.

  6. Mary Ann Jung says:

    The theory that Henry VIII died of syphilis is passe-very 1970’s, when they ascribed VD to everyone who ever lived or died. More likely he had a pulmonary embolism. He did not rest in peace. His coffin burst and dogs licked at his blood as Frair Peto had prophesied back in 1532. This delighted his Catholic enemies, who alas, still did Not get to live happily ever after. What a fun time!

  7. Leah says:

    Well, all kinds of people had it; the Greeks didn’t even think it was a malaise (one would think this was very modern and openminded of them except that I think it was just a side effect of their opinion of women). But it was a French way to scorn the enemy that used to be a property of the Ducs D’Anjou but whose nobility was becoming disturbingly unFrench.

    It all fits into the tradition of naming illnesses after a disliked ethnicity: German measles, Spanish influenza– there must be others, and in other languages. Australian croup? Russian palsy?

  8. Mary Ann,

    How can you begrudge Henry his syphilis? I suspect that you belong to that sinister Catholic organization Doris Dei. You strangle your victims with rosary beads while singing Che Sera Sera.

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