Month: December 2014

Two early pamphlets on the French Pox

Joseph Grünpeck had long aspired to a better career than teaching Latin to students in Augsburg. So in 1496 he seized an opportunity to advertise his skills to the Bürgermeister of Augsburg and, more aspirationally, to Emperor Maximilian I who passed through Augsburg in the fall of that year. At the core of Grünpeck’s efforts stood the French Disease and his two pamphlets describing its origins, spread, and symptoms.

The French Disease was sometimes called the great pox, the French pox, or simply the pox. These various names reflected the disease’s first appearance in the French troops besieging Naples. The French, understandably, didn’t like these names and called it the Neapolitan disease, claiming their troops had contracted it from Neapolitan courtesans. Whatever it was called, by late 1495 the French Disease had become an epidemic spreading up the Italian peninsula and through Europe. Maximilian had encountered the disease when he had marched his troops into Italy to liberate peninsula from French oppression (or, that’s how Maximilian cast it). Soon his troops were suffering and dying from some horrible disease nobody had seen before, so he retreated with his now infected armies. Within a year the French Disease was raging through the empire. At the imperial diet the following year, Maximilian issued his “blasphemy edict,” which blamed the irreligious practices of the German people for the spread of the French Disease throughout the empire. Maximilian established a set of fines associated with suspect behavior and a stiffer set of fines for anybody who came down with the disease (it seems unlikely that any of these fines were collected).

Grünpeck had first-hand knowledge of the French Disease and the emperor’s concerns about it. In 1495 he had fled the plague in Augsburg and traveled to Italy, only to run into the imperial armies as they fled the French Disease. Disheartened, Grünpeck returned to Augsburg and resumed teaching. In the fall of 1496 he published his Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos in both Latin and German, which he dedicated to Bernard Waldkirch, Bürgermeister.

The first edition of Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496) (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
The first edition of Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496) (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

Grünpeck argued that the French Disease had astrological causes. He detailed a series of planetary conjunctions that had produced a number of catastrophes culminating in the advent of the French Disease. A major conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter at 6:04 pm on November 25, 1484 had set things in motion. Such major conjunctions between the outer two planets often signaled (caused?) dire events on earth. These two planets had conjoined at 23°43’ of Scorpio, a sign ruled by Mars. A solar eclipse on March 25, 1485 had worsened the effects of the conjunction. Finally, Saturn and Mars had conjoined at 9° of Scorpio on November 30, 1485. There was good evidence for the cumulative effects of these conjunctions: Germany had been suffering from droughts and famines since the middle of the 1480s; 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, Grünpeck explained, “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.”[1]

Grünpeck’s astrological argument provided a logic for the French Disease’s early appearance in the French troops besieging Naples and the Italians, as well as its spread into the English and Germans. Combining his astrological argument with standard humoral medicine, Grünpeck could also account for the pox’s symptoms—the black, stinking, oozing sores that seemed to concentrate in the genitals as well as the fevers and burning in the limbs—and its close association with sexual activity. Grünpeck’s explanation drew on the characteristics of the zodiacal signs, the natures of the planets, the influences planets and signs held over various parts of the body and different countries, as well as the typical dispositions of people. Far from some superstitious claptrap, astrology provided Grünpeck and his readers a compelling account of the French Disease’s advent, spread, and symptoms, an account grounded in logic and evidence.

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 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. Both his Latin and German texts were reprinted, and soon pirated copies were published in other cities in southern Germany. A few years later new pirated copies were still being published.

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

Unfortunately for Grünpeck, his meteoric rise from Latin teacher to imperial secretary came to an abrupt end in 1501 when he contracted the French Disease. According to his own account, he was returning home from a party one evening when suddenly he was gripped by a burning fever and aching in his joints and limbs. He knew immediately that he had the dreaded French Disease. He was ostracized from the court. His only hope of returning to the court lay in finding a cure. While he struggled to find a cure he endured “a thousand abscesses around his genitalia” and agonizing mercury treatments—various ointments rubbed directly into open sores—before he finally overcame the disease. He chronicled his sufferings in his Libellus de mentulagra alias morbo gallico (1503), which he published to advertise his return to health. Amazingly, he was able to reintegrate into the court and enjoyed a long career there free from any symptoms of the disease. He died 30 years later from old age.

These two editions of Grünpeck’s pamphlet are in the Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The first edition was owned by local luminary S. Weir Mitchell. A Civil War surgeon, Mitchell worked in a couple hospitals here in Philadelphia where he was able to study the neurological effects of amputation. Mitchell was the first to describe what we now know as phantom limb syndrome, in his poignant “The Case of George Dedlow.” Mitchell (or one of his contemporaries) added a few minor marginal notes and corrections to the text.

S. Weir Mitchell’s copy of Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496). (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
S. Weir Mitchell’s copy of Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496). (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

The later edition, the pirated edition of Grünpeck’s text, was owned by Samuel Lewis, a president of the College. His copy, unfortunately, contains no marginalia.

It’s easy to dismiss Mitchell and Lewis as merely collectors of old books, but there might be something more going on here than antiquarianism.[2] Mitchell’s passing corrections suggest a reader who wanted to know what Grünpeck said and why—no, Mitchell was not looking for an astrological explanation of the disease, but he was looking for a historical record of it. Perhaps Lewis and Mitchell were looking to the past for ways of understanding the disease they confronted. It would be interesting to look closely at the other 15 or so early tracts on the French Disease at the College to see who owned and annotated them, including two copies of Fracastoro’s Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus:

  • Conrad Schellig, Inpustulas malas morbum quem malum de francia vulgus appellat (1496)
  • Conrad Schellig, In morbum gallicum [uncertain]
  • 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])
  • Martin Pollich, Responsio Martini Mellerstadt in superadditos errores Simonis Pistoris in medicina ad honorem almi gymnasii Lipcensis. (1501)
  • Niccolò Massa, Liber de morbo gallico noviter editus; in quo omnes modi possibiles sanandiipsum, mira quadam et artificiosa doctrina continentur, ut studiosi lectori patebit (1507)
  • Marco Gatinaria, Marci Gatinarie De curis egritudinum particularium noni Almansoris practica uberrima (1525) — this one includes four other tracts on the French Disease and is bound with a Guillelmi Varignane’s Secreta sublimia ad varios curandos morbos
  • Joannes Almenar Hispanus, Libelli duo de morbo gallico. Opusculum perutile de curatione morbi (ut vulgo dici solet) gallici ipsum perfecte eradicare ostendens (1528)
  • Wendelin Hock von Brackenau, Mentagra. Mentagra, sive tractatus excellens de causis preservativis, regimine & cura morbi Galli, sive (ut Galli dicunt) Neapolitani (1529)
  • Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (1530)
  • Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (1531)

As an aside: Fracastoro’s name for the disease, “syphilis,” continues to be used today. And despite the conceptual problems of projecting modern, germ-theory disease and the unbridgeable gaps in evidence and descriptions, many people identify the epidemic that gripped Europe from 1495 to 1520 as syphilis (in our modern sense).[3]

[This post is an updated version of my earlier post at pachs.net.]


  1. This quotation comes 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.  ↩

  2. Successful physicians and scientists still collect early works in their subjects. These collections seem to be motivated by antiquarianism or commemoration, efforts to find the origins of their subjects and to celebrate the progress that they have made. Rarely do practicing physicians or scientists look to the past for its intellectual content and what it might contribute to their own understanding of their discipline.  ↩

  3. J. 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).  ↩

Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth

For generations now American school children have learned that Christopher Columbus proved the earth was round. They have learned that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his seamen would sail off the edge of the earth or plunge into a chasm. They know that Columbus persevered and eventually overcame religious opposition. And they know that Columbus was right. At its core, the Columbus story pits humble rationality against dogmatic obscurantism in a sort of secular inversion of the David and Goliath story. Judging from the students in my intro classes, the Columbus story is thriving in American schools.

The only problem, as any historian or historian of science will tell you: it’s a myth.

Like any beloved myth, the Columbus story mixes truths and truthiness, something that seems so natural and so obviously true but isn’t. Columbus did face opposition. He did persevere. He did sail west. He did find land (not Asia as he had predicted and continued to believe but the New World). But these truths have nothing to do with the shape of the earth—Columbus and all his detractors knew that the earth was round. The truthiness in the myth lies, on the one hand, in the image of a dogmatic medieval Spanish Church that clung to a retrograde idea about the shape of the earth and refused to listen to reason and evidence. On the other hand, truthiness also inheres in the image of Columbus as a proto-modern, quasi-secular thinker guided only by reason and evidence. The truthiness is the reason 19th-century authors fabricated the myth and 21st-century educators continue to repeat it.

The seeds of the Columbus myth seem to grow from Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) (online here). Alexander Everett, Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, had invited Irving to Madrid in the hopes that Irving would translate a recently published collection of documents on Columbus. When Irving got there and had a chance to read the collection, he decided

that a history, faithfully digested from these various materials, was a desideratum in literature, and would be a more acceptable work to my country, than the translation [he] had contemplated.

So he set out to write a history of Columbus. Irving enjoyed unfettered access to libraries, which he mined for his biography. He culled from manuscripts and published books a wealth of information. Despite the material at his disposal, the sources were at times silent or missing or not all that interesting. So Irving embellished. He wrote what should have happened, what surely did happen even if the evidence had since disappeared. He did what historians had been doing since Herodotus: he made it up. He seamlessly wove fact and fiction together into a “clear and continued narrative.”

Irving detailed Columbus’s thoughts about the size of the earth. Columbus examined earlier maps that depicted the known world that stretched from Canary Islands in the west to its eastern limits in China. The Portuguese had more recently explored further west to the Azores. According to Columbus’s calculations, only a third of the earth’s circumference remained unexplored. Moreover, based on his reading of Arabic astronomers, Columbus thought the length of a degree at the equator was shorter than the commonly accepted length. The third of earth’s circumference was, Columbus concluded, much smaller than that accepted by contemporary cosmographers. As Irving pointed out in various places, Columbus was aberrant in his beliefs, which beliefs were, in fact, wrong:

It is singular how much the success of this great undertaking depended upon two happy errors, the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth ….[1]

But a recitation of historical truths was boring, especially when Irving knew the confrontation between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca must have been dramatic. So Irving embellished a little when he described Columbus before the council. He enhanced the historical truths with truthiness—events that seemed so right, so natural, that must have happened even if there’s no record of them.

The Council at Salamanca was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, as well as church dignitaries and learned friars, and convened to examine Columbus’s “new theory.” Most of the council members were biased against Columbus, “an obscure foreigner, without fortune, or connexions, or any academic honors.” In what must have been the acme of truthiness for Irving, he described the council benighted by “monastic bigotry” and assailing Columbus with Biblical citations. They rejected mathematical demonstrations that conflicted with scriptures or Church Fathers. At issue was not, however, the shape of the earth, but the possibility of antipodes:

Thus the possibility of antipodes in the southern hemisphere … became a stumbling block with some of the sages of Salamanca.

Members of the council invoked Lactantius, who connected the existence of antipodes to the shape of the earth. Irving quoted what has become the standard passage:

“The idea of the roundness of the earth,” he adds, “was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes with their heels in the air….”

A quick reading of Irving might confirm that the issue here was the shape of the earth, but in the next sentence he returned to the antipodes:

But more grave objections were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounced the doctrine of antipodes incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean.

The council’s grave objections focused on the existence of other humans, not on the shape of the earth.

Iriving described briefly a couple objections raised about the shape of the earth—passages from the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews—but these serve merely as a foil for the objections raised by “[o]thers, more versed in science, [who] admitted the globular form of the earth.” Their objections were grounded the knowledge that the earth was a sphere. They worried that it was impossible to sail across the torrid zone at the equator, that only the northern hemisphere was inhabitable, and that the circumference of the earth was so great as to require three years to sail across the Atlantic.

Whatever liberties Irving took in crafting his biography, he did not lose sight of historical truths. Instead, and perhaps more disturbingly, he enlisted those truths in the service of truthiness. In Irving’s version, Columbus had struggled against “errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry” of the Spanish Church that refused to listen to reason and evidence. His biography was less about Columbus and more about the timeless struggle between on the one hand rationality, science, individuality, and anti-aristocratic modernity and, on the other hand, a retrograde, oppressive, medieval Church. It was the story’s truthiness that appealed to other 19th-century authors.

Within a decade, William Whewell had published his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) (online here). In a section on antipodes, he admitted that most people throughout history had known the earth was round. Only a few people who preferred scriptural evidence over physical evidence denied the sphericity of the earth. Lactantius, of course, and now Cosmas Indicopleustes, who says nothing about antipodes but offers an easily mocked tabernacle-shaped world and flat earth. Whewell then returns to the antipodes before concluding the section by casually remarking: “Tostatus notes the opinion of the rotundity of the earth as an unsafe doctrine, only a few years before Columbus visited the other hemisphere.” Again, Columbus and the shape of the earth.

By the latter 19th-century, the supposed truth of the Columbus story had completely replaced the historical truths. In works like John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) (online here) we read nothing of the reasoned objections raised by the Council at Salamanca or of Columbus’s errors. Instead we learn that his proposal’s

irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the Council of Salamanca; its orthodoxy was confuted from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophecies, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the writings of the Fathers—St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St Ambrose.

In the end, Columbus prevailed and along with Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan finally settled the question of the shape of the earth.

By the time Andrew White wrote his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) (online here), Columbus’s struggles to overcome a medieval Church that believed in a flat earth had become historical fact. Historical truth had surrendered to truthiness. White transformed Irving’s biased but still recognizable historical account into little more than agitprop:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

Despite decades of historical work and dozens of articles and textbooks and, more recently, blogposts, the Columbus myth is alive and well in the United States. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently invoked it. President Obama equated opponents of clean energy to people who opposed Columbus on the grounds that the earth was flat. The president received much applause when he said (at 0:55 in the video):

If some of these folks [opponents of clean energy] were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.

More recently still, Chris Impey, an astronomer at University of Arizona who claims to be interested in and knowledgable about history, fell prey to the Columbus myth in a lecture posted on YouTube, “Ancient Astronomy.” He identifies himself as “a student of history” and a member of a select group, “the educated extreme of the culture.” Yet moments earlier he lamented that

[t]here was a thing called the Dark Ages. There was a period of 700 or 800 years when all of the extraordinary insights of the Greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat. And truly thought the world was flat. There were demons that lurked at the edge of the map.

He underscores this claim in his video series “Teach Astronomy” (which is part of an online textbook). In the section on “The Dark Ages” he says:

In the fourth century with the fall of Rome and the sacking of the great library at Alexandria scientific darkness fell across Europe. Even the language of learning, Latin, splintered as warring tribes took over. The theology of the day was defined by Augustine, and the Christian church was mostly anti-science. The learning of the Romans and the Greeks was denigrated as pagan knowledge. Even the knowledge of the round Earth was lost for many centuries.

Impey’s comments reveal, I think, the power of the Columbus myth. It has become so central to the idea of modernity, that even a self-described student of history who is both smart and very educated—part of the “educated extreme”—is not motivated to do a simple internet search to fact check that part of his lecture and textbook. Whereas Irving had mixed truths and truthiness into a “clear and continued narrative,” subsequent authors have pruned the historical truths from the story, leaving just a myth that has become part of modern folklore.


  1. Irving’s biography also depicts Columbus as something of a zealot, motivated by religious and dogmatic convictions as much as anything. For more on Columbus’s religious motivations, see Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey.  ↩