By Erica Graff (Vanderbilt University)
Today, syphilis is understood to be a sexually transmitted disease that is spread through direct contact with syphilis sores. But this was not always the case.
A small group of early modern Europeans referred to syphilis as the disease of St. Job. These pious people generally understood the disease to be a direct message from God. Ironically, however, this idea sheds a comparatively positive light on the often-shunned French Disease.
In its nature and symptoms, syphilis was extremely similar to Job’s disease as described in the Old Testament. It was believed that syphilis only affected certain people, as opposed to spreading like a plague. Likewise, God mysteriously sent an unknown disease to Job, and nobody else was affected. Both syphilis and Job’s disease were of unknown causes and their symptoms were long lasting and almost unbearable. Furthermore, these symptoms took so many forms that it was nearly impossible to find a cure for the entire disease.
Because not much was known about syphilis, it was most easily explained by creating a parallel with the disease of St. Job. Although some viewed Job’s disease as a divine punishment, others believed that it was in fact a test of a layman’s faith in the Lord. Many versions of the Book of Job conclude with God rewarding Job’s unwavering faith and innocent suffering. Syphilis, then, could be viewed in this same manner because there was no other feasible explanation. If those affected by syphilis remained faithful and unquestioning, then God would bring them a divine cure just as he had brought them the disease.
Thus, some members of the religious community viewed syphilitics more sympathetically. Doctors, who were viewed as God’s medical messengers, were more inclined to help treat symptoms. Instead of scolding syphilitics, people tried to morally guide them and assist them in healing and restructuring their lives.
Essentially, syphilis was widely understood to be a horrible disease that appeared as a punishment for immoral behavior in early modern Europe. There was however a small group of people who believed the disease to come from that of St. Job. In this case, syphilitics were a representation of unwavering faith and this presented a more positive image of the disease.
Arrizablaga, Jon et al. The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Print.