Feeling Sickness: Emotional responses to pandemic diseases


It’s a wintery afternoon and, once again, I’m scrolling through news articles about Covid-19. Since countries entered their first lockdowns, much has been written on the pandemic’s emotional and psychological impacts. 

Loss, loneliness, fear, stress, anger; these emotions figure prominently in many narratives of the pandemic. It seems that emotional consequences will endure, even after Covid-19 comes under control. I very much hope that the kindnesses and compassion that this global pandemic has elicited will last even longer. I hope that we will continue to value and respect the work of medical and frontline workers and care for our communities, especially those among us who are vulnerable or struggling.

Pandemics of Hatred?

Observing and experiencing this time, I am struck by some parallels with early modern emotional responses to pandemic diseases. For the past five years, I have been researching medical, social and emotional responses to syphilis in Germany between 1495 and 1700. When I set out on this path, I expected to unearth records of aggression and hatred because, until recently, it had been widely assumed that the emotional response to pandemics was always negative; that waves of disease brought waves of hatred and blaming.

Figure 1. Nuremberg cityscape (1493)

However, this hatred hypothesis is drawing increasing criticism. One important critic is Professor Samuel K. Cohn, author of Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (2018). This book examines outbreaks from the fifth century BCE to the Ebola crisis of 2014 and demonstrates that hate is not the default response to a pandemic. He shows that there are numerous historical examples of communities responding with aid and compassion. 

Cohn’s research encouraged me to abandon my negative expectations. Approaching my sources with an open mind, I discovered that, as we see now with Covid-19, the early modern syphilis pandemic provoked a broad and complex range of emotional reactions. While people were often afraid, many responded by providing support and compassion to the sick and their communities.

The Syphilis Pandemic

In the winter of 1494-1495, Charles VIII of France laid siege to the city of Naples, Italy. The conflict involved soldiers and mercenaries from Italy, France, Spain, the German-speaking lands, and Scotland. With the French victory, the combatants began to return to their homelands. As they travelled, a terrifying sickness seemed to follow in their wake. 

Syphilis spread incredibly rapidly for the period, reaching Germany by 1495-1496, Scotland by 1497, India by 1498, and Guangzhou by 1505. While syphilis is today understood as a principally sexually transmitted disease, during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, many believed that it also spread through infected objects and non-sexual touch. Victims suffered with an array of horrifying symptoms: their bodies were covered in ulcerations and pustules and their limbs were riddled with agonising pains. In its most terrible form, the disease would rot the bones of its living victims.

Figure 2. Theodoriucs Ulsenius‘ poem In Epidimica[m] scabiem with illustration (1496)
Syphilis in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Germany: Fear

In Germany, the earliest years of the pandemic were uncertain times. Medical practitioners struggled to find reliable cures; some even worried that it was an incurable illness. This is reflected in the poem pictured above In Epidemica[m] scabiem (1496) by Theodericus Ulsenius, a Dutch physician working in Nuremberg. In this poem Ulsenius wrote that nobody knew how to cure syphilis, and while the population suffered horribly, the doctors argued amongst themselves. 

While Ulsenius and other medical practitioners searched for cures, many other worried Germans turned to God. Research by myself and others has identified seven Christian prayers written into manuscripts or published on single sheets of paper between 1495 and 1529. These prayers implored God and various saints, including the patron saint of syphilitics – Saint Fiacre, to protect the reader. 

Following the old narrative of pandemics, we might expect this fear of a mysterious pandemic would be closely accompanied by hatred and blaming.

Care and Compassion

I have found no evidence of any mass scapegoating or blaming prompted by the arrival of syphilis in Germany. It was previously assumed that the names given to the disease, like ‘French pox’ and ‘sickness of Naples’, indicated blaming. However, Cohn demonstrated that, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was no malice behind these names.

For instance in 1519, Ulrich von Hutten, a German knight and humanist wrote although he used the term ‘French pox’ he had nothing but respect for the ‘noble’ French. He simply used the name so everyone would know which disease he was writing about. Joseph Grünpeck, a secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor, believed that the disease had first arisen in France due to specific climatic conditions and the peoples’ particular bodily constitutions. For him, the French were simply victims of uncontrollable circumstances.

Many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Germans, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, believed that God had sent syphilis as punishment for sinfulness. However, they did not identify a particular group as the perpetrators of this wrath-invoking immorality. Moreover, many contemporaries believed that, while some syphilis victims were sinners, many were ‘innocent’; they were not sinners suffering the consequences of immorality. 

Figure 3. Patients being treated for syphilis from Paracelsus, Erster [-der dritter] theil der grossen wundartzney (1536)

Many families and friends did all they could to support and care for the sick. For example, Ulrich von Hutten recorded how his friends kept him company and cheered him up, despite the awful smell of the treatments he was undergoing and his sometimes disgusting symptoms. In Nuremberg, a local man made a special bequest to his wife as thanks for “all her good and kindly will and work” in caring for him during his long struggle with syphilis. Even though syphilis was a frightening new pandemic, love and care played a central role in many individuals’ responses.

Governments and hospitals also sought to care for their citizens. In Frankfurt am Main and Nuremberg, the city councils issued various orders to slow the spread of the disease. For example, in 1495, the Frankfurt council ordered all syphilitics to be quarantined. These measures aimed to protect the healthy population.These councils also went to considerable lengths to provide medical care to the sick. Nuremberg spent thousands of Gulden on building, staffing and supplying a dedicated hospital for syphilitics. This helped to manage the disease effectively, providing vital long-term structure because although the pandemic subsided, syphilis continued (and continues) to affect the global population. The council also covered the treatment costs of those who could not otherwise afford it. They even cared for individuals who were seen as immoral, paying for the treatment of at least one prostitute and several non-local beggars (beggars were often perceived as immoral during this period of history).

Conclusions: Creating a caring future

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there was much fear and anxiety surrounding syphilis, a horrifying disease sometimes linked with immorality. Nevertheless, compassion and help featured prominently in the responses of Germanic society. They comforted and cured the sick and protected the healthy. 

When we come to write the histories of Covid-19, I hope that we will see a similar pattern. Furthermore, as we plan for inevitable future pandemics, it is vital that we look at history to understand how we can overcome fear, prevent blame, and foster compassion, care and community.

Monica O’Brien

Monica O’Brien‘s research focuses on the histories of pandemic and epidemic disease in late medieval and early modern Germany. Her PhD (2019) explored medical, governmental and social responses to syphilis in the cities of Frankfurt am Main and Nuremberg. The Herzog August Bibliothek has awarded Monica a 2021 postdoctoral scholarship for her research project investigating the role of religious emotions in German responses to syphilis from 1495 to the present. In 2019, she won the McCarthy award for History of Medicine Research, run by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, for her work on Franzosenärzte (French pox/syphilis doctors) in early modern Nuremberg.

Banner Image and Figure 1. Cityscape of Nuremberg, in Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg, circa 1493).Source: Wellcome Collection. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Figure 2. Theodoricus Ulsenius’s poem In Epidimica[m] scabiem with an illustration of a syphilitic man (1496). Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0

Figure 3. Patients being treated for syphilis, from Paracelsus, Erster [-der dritte] theil der grossen wundartzney [1536]. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0.

Author Photo. Monica O’Brien. Supplied by the author.

More like this:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: