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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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 ()
- 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).
[This post is an updated version of my earlier post at pachs.net.]
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. ↩
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. ↩
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). ↩