Consequential sex in the late 18th century: Over 20 percent of Londoners had been infected with syphilis by the age of 35, historians have calculated based on hospital data. In the provincial towns of England, however, the dangerous venereal disease was only about half as intense. As the scientists explain, the high levels of immigration and prostitution associated with poverty favored the enormous spread of syphilis in the rapidly growing metropolis.
In addition to the plague, colera and the like, a special horror haunted the history of Europe: syphilis was not only life-threatening, it also acted as a punishment from God for “lewd” behavior, because it was clear how to deal with this “ Suffering of Venus ”. From the end of the 15th century, the sexually transmitted disease began to spread widely in Europe. It then raged particularly badly in the 18th century, as can be seen from numerous sources. They also refer to a pronounced syphilis hotspot: the expanding metropolis of London.
The lust plague in sight
As historians Simon Szreter and Kevin Siena from the University of Cambridge report, this is documented particularly impressively by the diaries of James Boswell (1740 to 1795): the famous writer reports on numerous painful experiences with syphilis and other venereal diseases.
His notes also show how he picked them up: Boswell noted in his diaries his frequent visits to prostitutes in London. He then paid for these sexual activities in two ways: syphilis was painful, life-threatening and the treatments of the time were almost as terrible as the disease itself.
At the first signs of a rash or painful urination, people in Georgian England hoped that they had only picked up gonorrhea. On the other hand, if it was syphilis, the symptoms worsened: paralyzing pain and fever. If left untreated, the disease could lead to nerve damage and death. At that time, the only effective treatment against the bacterial pathogen was mercury.
The cure with the toxic heavy metal, however, had bad side effects and required at least five weeks of inpatient treatment. This was even offered free of charge by some London hospitals.
Tracking down the spread
But how bad was the “lust epidemic” actually at that time? In order to substantiate the extent of the distribution with figures, Szreter and Siena have evaluated large amounts of data from hospital information registers and inspection reports as well as from other sources of the time. In addition to London, they also targeted the provincial city of Chester and rural areas of England. So they came against the background of the population around 1775 to estimate the spread of syphilis.
Their calculations show that on average every fifth Londoner has contracted syphilis up to his 35th birthday. This corresponds to a 20 percent chance of infection. In comparison, it was significantly lower in Chester, the calculations showed: The average risk of infection by the age of 35.
Year of life was only eight percent there. “Not surprisingly, the sexual culture of London during this period was different from that of rural Britain. But now it is becoming clear that London played in a completely different league than even larger provincial towns like Chester, ”says Szreter.
The two historians emphasize that it can be assumed that a far greater number of Londoners were infected with gonorrhea or chlamydia at the time. “Our results suggest that Boswell’s London fully deserves its historic reputation,” said Szreter. “One can even assume that the majority of Londoners contracted an STD as young adults,” said the historian.
But why was London so badly affected? An important factor, according to the authors, was the enormous influx of people that would eventually make London the largest city in the world. Among them were many unmarried, impoverished women. They were often forced to provide themselves financially through commercial sex. In addition, they were often at the mercy of men from their milieu. At a time before the possibilities of prophylaxis or effective treatments, syphilis was able to spread considerably and also penetrate into other social classes.
In addition to insights into medical history and sexual culture, the results also provide further information, the historians emphasize: “Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases can have a significant impact on the mortality rate and also on the fertility of a population. The infection rates thus represented a serious gap in our historical knowledge, with significant effects on the assessment of health, demography and thus on economic history. We hope that our work can help change that, ”says Szreter.