Friday, July 09, 2010

Exploring Collections: Tracts on the French Disease in the College of Physicians

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/09 at 11:23 AM

The Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia continues to delight with interesting old books. Looking through the incunabula again, I came across eight early tracts on the French Disease (commonly identified as syphilis).1

  • Conrad Schellig, Inpustulas malas morbum quem malum de francia vulgus appellat (1496)
  • Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos (1496)
  • Niccolò Leoniceno, Libellus de epidemia quam uulgo morbum Gallicum uocant (1497)
  • Niccolò Leoniceno, Libellus de epidimia quam uulgo morbum Gallicum uocant siue brossulas (1497)
  • Corradinus Gilinus, Coradinus gilinus arctium et medicinae doctor de morbo quem gallicum nuncupant (1497)
  • Antonius Scanarolus, Disputatio Utilis de morbo gallico (1498)
  • Petrus Pintor, Tractatus de morbo fedo et occulto his temporibus affligente (1500)
  • Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos ([1500])

I wanted to see the texts by Joseph Grünpeck, the two editions of his Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos.

Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra(Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Grünpeck published a Latin and German version of this text in the fall of 1496, apparently using them as advertise his services to Emperor Maximilian I. The German version of Grünpeck’s text was one of the first vernacular tracts on the French Disease. Like many people, Grünpeck argued that the French Disease had astrological causes. He traced the cause to the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that had occurred in 1484.

The bulk of Grünpeck’s work was consumed in laying out his theory; proving its validity required only that Grünpeck fill in the historical events, which he did in meticulous detail on a single page. The primary cause of the French Disease was a series of planetary conjunctions. The first of these was the conjunctio major at 6:04 PM on 25 November 1484, when Saturn and Jupiter had met at 23°43’ of Scorpio, a sign ruled by Mars. The solar eclipse that followed on 25 March 1485 was the second conjunction, whose effects were made worse by its proximity to the conjunctio major. Finally, Saturn and Mars came together at 9° of Scorpio on 30 November 1485. Like the eclipse, this conjunction was under the malevolent influence of the preceding conjunctio major. These phenomena had a cumulative effect and indicated a period of increasingly dire catastrophes, including plagues, famines, war, and natural disasters. Grünpeck reminds his reader that this is exactly what had come to pass: Germany had been suffering from droughts and famines since the middle of the previous decade; war between the Empire and Charles VIII of France was raging in Italy; the plague had become endemic in many southern German cities, breaking out each summer; and a number of earthquakes had occurred in the early 1490s. Worst of all, ‘in addition to all this there came the cruel and unheard of and unseen sickness, the French Disease, which also the aforementioned conjunction has brought here from France into Italy, and after that into Germany.’ On this account, the pox was the culmination of dire consequences springing from the series of conjunctions in the mid 1480s.2

He developed an elaborate astrological argument to explain the disease’s early appearance in the French troops besieging Naples and the Italians, and then its spread into the English and Germans:

Here, Grünpeck relied on the primary qualities of the planets and zodiacal signs, and the belief that these planets and signs affected the people who shared those characteristics. Jupiter, normally a beneficial planet, was a hot and moist planet and ruled over France. However, in the 1484 conjunction, Jupiter’s influence had been negated by two facts. First, the malevolent Saturn had suppressed Jupiter in the conjunction, and second, Mars, the other malevolent planet, had been Lord of the conjunction. Here Grünpeck’s politics begin to appear. Just as Jupiter, France’s ruling planet, had been overcome by the other planets during this conjunction, so too were the French the first to be oppressed by the pox, for their normally fit complexion had a natural abundance of blood, moisture, and saturation, all of which were prone to rotting. In a thinly veiled political statement, Grünpeck implied that the Italians were no better than the French and thus were particularly susceptible to the French Disease, a conclusion he arrived at by pointing to the similar odor that accompanied both the pox and the Italians. Finally, he treats rather summarily the pox’s spread into the Germany and England. Mars’s role in the conjunction, along with its influence over the similarly warlike and fierce Germans, explained the spread of the pox into the empire.

Using his astrological framework Grünpeck could also account for the pox’s symptoms:

Like all writers of the period, Grünpeck had to address the question: why did the pox strike the genitals? Once again he turned to astrology. The latest conjunctio major had occurred in Scorpio, which in accepted medical theory ruled the sexual organs. Consequently, this conjunction portended some horrible disease afflicting the genitals. Scorpio was also the house of the malevolent Mars, indicating that this affliction would be particularly severe. Grünpeck could, however, make his explanation more specific than this. Nobody doubted that the French Disease resulted from an excess of the two humors melancholy and cholera, as confirmed by the disease’s symptoms: black, oozing sores that produced a rancid stench; fevers and burning in the limbs and joints. According to Galenic medicine, Saturn influenced the production and expulsion of melancholy, while Mars exercised similar control over cholera. This relationship was essential to Grünpeck’s explanation. Drawing on both the conjunctio major and, more importantly, the subsequent conjunction of Saturn and Mars, Grünpeck pointed out how the main symptoms of the pox were derived from these two planets. To explain the final characteristic symptom of the French Disease, the concentration of the black pustules on and around the genitals, Grünpeck needed only to point to the fact that all the conjunctions had occurred in the sign of Scorpio. Nature, he claimed, tries to relieve the excess of melancholy and cholera by expelling them where there is a concentration of veins, heat, and moisture, that is, the genital area, which Scorpio ruled.

Grünpeck’s astrological diagram indicating the location of the planets at the moment of creation (Source:  The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Grünpeck’s text was quite successful, both in helping him secure a position at the imperial court—he was soon appointed imperial secretary and later crowned poet laureate—and in finding a market. Almost immediately pirated copies were published in other cities in southern Germany. A few years later new pirated copies were still being published:

J. Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra [1500], a pirated copy printed in Cologne (Source:The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

While the text of these pirated copies varied little, usually reflecting local dialect, the woodcuts illustrating the text were often quite different. Printers would use any vaguely relevant woodcut to illustrate the title page. Sometimes, as in the case with the copy of Grünpeck’s text that was printed in Cologne ca. 1500, the printer seemed simply to use whatever woodcut was handy. The printer added, almost as an afterthought, an astrological woodcut at the end of the text:

Personifications of Saturn and Jupiter illustrate the last page of Grünpeck’s text printed in Cologne (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

While Grünpeck’s text was successful, his own career suffered a something of a setback. In 1501 he attended a dinner party in Augsburg where, according to his own account, he contracted the dreaded French Disease. He was immediately ostracized from the court and had to relinquish his position there. He struggled to find a cure, enduring “a thousand abscesses around his genitalia” and agonizing mercury treatments before he finally overcame the disease. He chronicles his sufferings in his Libellus de mentulagra alias morbo gallico (1503), which he published to advertise his return to health. In the end, he was able to reinsert himself into the court and enjoyed a long career there.

1J. Arrizabalaga, J. Henderson, and R. French argue that scholars should not equate the French Disease (or the Great Pox, as it was often called) with syphilis. See their The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe> (Yale, 1997).
2This and the following quotations come from my article, which contains a mind-numbingly detailed account of Grünpeck’s argument: D. Hayton, “Joseph Grünpeck’s Astrological Explanation of the French Disease,” in Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe, ed. Kevin Siena (Toronto: CRRS, 2005), 241–74.

Tags: college of physicians of philadelphia, french disease, incunabula, joseph grunpeck, joseph grünpeck


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