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  • No matter what time period of history  you look at one thing remains constant:  

  • humans love to have sex. The Middle  Ages were no different. However,  

  • sex during this time could cause all sorts  of problems, especially concerning the church  

  • and your eternal soul. But that  didn't stop people from having sex,  

  • and whenever there is a lot of sexand not  a lot of medical knowledgeSTDs run rampant.

  • We are going to look at some of the worst STDs  of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the problems  

  • don't stop there. The treatments for the STDs were  sometimes worse than the infections themselves.  

  • Also, in the Middle Ages sexually transmitted  diseases tended to be blamed solely on females;  

  • they were after all where original sin came  from according to the Christian church.

  • First it's important to mention that sexually  transmitted diseases have probably been around  

  • since the beginning of human civilizationThere are clay tablets, papyri, and paintings  

  • from ancient times that depict discharge  from the genitalia associated with STDs.  

  • So, STDs are a part of human history. This isn't  surprising since humans tend to have a lot of sex,  

  • which is an easy way for pathogens  to get from one body to another.

  • During the Middle Ages physicians  in both Europe and Arabic countries  

  • kept records of different diseases of the  genitalia. The naming conventions used back  

  • then were different from today, so  scientists have had to hypothesize  

  • what the different STDs were based on  the descriptions given in the past.

  • The Christian church promoted a lifestyle of  abstinence in Europe, but just like today,  

  • abstinence is never an effective form  of sex education or preventing STDs.  

  • Throughout history prostitution, communal bathsand wars were all responsible for allowing  

  • sexually transmitted diseases to proliferate among  humans. And the Middle Ages were no different.

  • What historians and scientists are able to  discern from Medieval texts is fairly limited.  

  • This is because it was taboo to discuss STDs,  

  • or even sex itself, during this time. A lot of  the information we have comes from clergy members,  

  • as literacy among the common populace  was rare. And as you can imagine,  

  • the clergy were not very well versed in sexually  transmitted diseases during the Middle Ages.

  • Most of the time STDs were seen as a moral  issue rather than a medical one. They were  

  • punishments for people who were living their lives  outside of the teachings of Christ. Unfortunately,  

  • those who were persecuted the most were femalesThis is again because all the evil in the world  

  • could be traced back to Eve's original sin of  eating from the Tree of Knowledge, or so the  

  • Church believed. As we will see it was rarelywoman's fault that STDs were being passed on. It  

  • will make you sick to find out what some men were  willing to do to rid themselves of their STDs.

  • Let's start by identifying some of the most common  STDs in the Middle Ages. Again, the names we have  

  • for certain diseases today are not what the  people of Medieval Europe called them. But  

  • through descriptions and symptoms we have a pretty  good idea what was afflicting people at the time.

  • There was one disease no one wanted to take  responsibility for. It was considered a  

  • foreign diseasein almost every region of  the world. For example in England, Germany,  

  • and Italy it was called theFrench Disease.”  In France they called it theNeopolitan  

  • disease.” Russians said it was a disease from  Poland, Turks said it was a Christian disease,  

  • and so it went around Europe, Africa, and  Asia. But what was this mysterious STD?

  • The disease itself can cover the body in  sores. These sores are often painless,  

  • which made the disease even more dangerousbecause people didn't think it was harmful.  

  • However, as the disease progressed  things got much, much, worse.  

  • The skin could break out in rashes, and lesions  could form in the mouth, vagina, or anus.  

  • The disease could also cause fever, swollen lymph  glands, hair loss, muscle aches, and fatigue.

  • But it was the final stage where things  got really dangerous. If left untreated  

  • the disease infiltrated different organ systems  including the circulatory and nervous systems.  

  • The mysterious STD could then cause paralysis,  

  • blindness, and dementia. If the disease continued  to progress it could eventually lead to death.

  • So, what was this terrible sexually  transmitted disease in the Middle Ages?  

  • The answer is syphilis.

  • Regardless of what it was  called in the Middle Ages  

  • syphilis was one of the most prevalent STDs of  the era. It transcended social class and gender.  

  • Obviously social class determined what kind  of treatment you could get for the STD,  

  • but none of them were effective at the time anyway  since physicians had no idea how pathogens worked.

  • Syphilis was mostly spread  through brothels and prostitutes  

  • as the disease could be transmitted without  the infected person knowing they had it. Also,  

  • it was in these establishments that lots of pious  Christians went to to engage in behavior that was  

  • frowned upon. It may have been more beneficial  for the churches of the Middle Ages to focus  

  • their attention on medicine and science rather  than on persecuting people for having sex.  

  • Another sexually transmitted disease of  the Middle Ages was theburning sickness.”  

  • The name itself sounds painfuland it most definitely was.  

  • This STD is better known as gonorrhea todayAlthough the nameburning sicknessdoes  

  • make a lot of sense because of the symptoms  associated with this sexually transmitted disease.

  • Theburning sicknesswas widely spread across  Medieval Europe due to its high infection rate.  

  • If it was found that a woman was carrying  the disease, she could be kicked out of  

  • the brothel she worked at. However, this rarely  solved the problem or the spread of gonorrhea.

  • People who contracted theburning sickness”  felt a burning sensation while urinatinghence  

  • the name. There was also a white, yellow, or  green discharge from the penis or vagina, so  

  • once someone had progressed to this stage of the  disease, it was pretty obvious they had the STD.  

  • Like with syphilis, the blame for the STD fell  almost exclusively on women. And again like  

  • syphilis, there was no cure during the Middle  Ages for theburning sickness.” Although,  

  • unlike syphilis, gonorrhea was almost never  deadly, only shameful and extremely uncomfortable.

  • Another disease that was spread through sex  during the Middle Ages was not technically an STD.  

  • However, it was associated with the  carnal act by people of the time.

  • Leprosy was not uncommon during the Middle Agesand the disease could easily be passed from one  

  • person to the next during sex. The problem  was that the bacteria could be transmitted  

  • without someone showing any symptomsWith this disease, like all the others,  

  • women were blamed for the spread of  leprosy when it was transmitted sexually.

  • The term leprosy was actually used in the Middle  Ages, however, it was kind of a catch-all term  

  • for any disease that caused sores or lesions. Soif a doctor wasn't sure what a disease actually  

  • was, he recorded it as leprosy. What we do know is  that the disease itself causes sores and swelling,  

  • which can eventually lead to the destruction  of nerves. This can cause paralysis,  

  • shortening of toes and fingers due to  reabsorption, blindness, and disfigurement.

  • You may be wondering what cures were available  for STDs during the Middle Ages. Surprisingly,  

  • going to a doctor could actually be worse  for your health than the disease itself.

  • Most doctors of the time worked under what was  known as humor theory. Basically the idea was  

  • that everyone is composed of certain elements  that must be in balance to be in good health.  

  • Therefore, treatments weren't necessarily  developed to treat the STD itself,  

  • but instead to rebalance the different  elements of the body. As we know now  

  • from modern science this is not, and never  was, an effective way to treat illness.

  • Oftentimes mercury was given to a person with  syphilis to help cure the STD. The patient  

  • would rub the deadly poison right on the parts  of the skin where sores and lesions developed.  

  • This allowed the chemical to get into the  bloodstream, and made them even more sick.  

  • But the practice continued to be used  even though its success rate was zero.

  • Another way to treat STDs in the Middle Ages  was through leaching. This is when the body is  

  • covered in leeches, which were thought to suck  the disease out of the body. This obviously did  

  • not work, but yet again, it continued to be  a common practice throughout the Middle Ages.

  • For men there was an incredibly painfuland  incredibly ineffectivetreatment for STDs.  

  • Doctors sometimes recommended hitting  the genitals with a heavy object.  

  • This would cause massive amounts of pain, and  would not benefit the person with the STD at all.

  • Oftentimes the solution to an STD was to cover  up the symptoms instead of treating the illness.  

  • This was done for a couple of reasons. If you were  a male, and were engaging in adulterous behavior,  

  • you probably didn't want your wife to find out  you had an STD from frequenting a bath house or  

  • brother. On the other hand, you definitely didn't  want the church to find out you had been engaging  

  • in unlawful carnal affairs either, because then  you ran the risk of your soul being sent straight  

  • to hell. Or you'd have to pay a lot of money to  a priest so they would absolve you of your sins.

  • Women who's only means of income was working in  brothels needed to cover up their infections so  

  • they could continue to work. If given the choice  between hiding an STD, or starving to death, the  

  • choice was easy. The covering up of symptoms was  done using dyes, animal fats, and even earthworms.

  • It was suggested by physicians that  the genitals should be washed before  

  • and after sex to prevent the transmission  of diseases. These medical professionals  

  • recommended the best substances to clean your  private parts were vinegar and urine. These  

  • substances were thought to purify the areabut really they just made them smell bad.

  • Surprisingly there were some preventative methods  that may have worked in the Middle Ages. In the  

  • 1500s a man named Gabriele Fallopius developedcondom that could be used to prevent the spread  

  • of certain STDs like syphilis. The condom was made  from linen that was soaked in chemicals. Accounts  

  • from the time say that out of the 1,100 men  who used the primitive condoms, none contracted  

  • syphilis. We can't verify the validity of this  experiment, or if a rigorous scientific method  

  • was utilized, but the fact that there was a condom  available during the Middle Ages is kind of neat.

  • Out of everything we've discussed about  STDs from the Middle Ages so far there  

  • is one practice that was worse than all others.  

  • It is reasons like this why it's so important  to listen to science and medical professionals.

  • It was widely believed, and practiced, that to get  rid of an STD a man should have sex with a virgin.  

  • There is so much wrong with this idea that  it's difficult to choose where to begin.  

  • It was though that since STDs werepunishment for doing something bad,  

  • like having sex outside of your marriage, the  cure for the disease might be the cleanliness  

  • of a virgin. This meant men with syphilisgonorrhea, or even leprosy sought out virgin  

  • women to have sex with. The most messed up part  was that these women were not given a choice,  

  • and forced to have sex with the STD  infected men. Let that sink in for a moment.

  • There were probably hundreds of different  STDs spreading around the world during the  

  • Middle Ages. The two main ones were  most likely syphilis and gonorrhea.  

  • Both of these STDs are preventable and treatable  today thanks to advances in medicine and science.

  • Now watchWhy Life During The Dark Ages Sucked.”  Or check outWhy Do We Actually Have Sex.”

No matter what time period of history  you look at one thing remains constant:  

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B1 disease syphilis middle transmitted sexually leprosy

Why STDs in the Middle Ages Were Even Worse Than Today

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    Summer posted on 2021/10/10
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