Syphilis and Popular (Renaissance) Culture

Albrecht Dürer (German),
c. 1496
colored woodcut – print
25.7 x 9.7 cm
Staatliche Museen du Berlin

This woodcut by Dürer from the beginning of the outbreak of a mysterious venereal disease at the turn of the 15th/16th centuries accompanies a popular new form of literature that emerged at the time: syphilis poetry. Dürer’s Syphilitic Man appears with a poem by Theodore Ulsenius.

The imaginative possibilities of poetry highlighted the devastation that syphilis wrought on Europe before (and after) it was firmly understood that syphilis was a sexually-transmitted disease. The representations of astrological signs at the top of the woodcut signify a planetary event that occurred in 1484 that many intellectuals at the time attributed to the outbreak of the disease. Scorpio, in particular, was associated with the genital sphere.

The most famous poem to come out of this moment was Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis, or the French Disease (1530), which gave the affliction its contemporary name. Fracastoro relates the horrors of “pustules with an acorn-cup and rotten with thick slime, which soon afterwards gaped wide open and flowed with a discharge like mucous and putrid blood.”* Syphilis (Treponema pallidum), even in its significantly less virulent contemporary form, can permanently disfigure or even kill its host. Beyond the presence of painful ulcers and ‘gummy’ tumors, syphilis – when contracted in pregnant women – can induce miscarriages and has a high rate of fatal transmission to infants.

The horrors of syphilis produced many interesting effects on society. Unlike most alarming outbreaks, the fear surrounding syphilis did not result in trends of violence against minority communities. Some scholars have speculated that  syphilis contributed to a rise in witchcraft hysteria. However in large part, as noted in Fracastoro’s full title, syphilis became attributed to whole nations of people. Particularly once 16th century physicians understood its venereal nature, syphilis became associated with low moral standing, and thus the inferiority of other peoples.

Syphilis was most commonly referred to as the French Disease, as several reports attributed its origin to the French wars in Italy. Contemporary scholars are still undecided on its real origins, though most suspect that it came over from the New World with Columbus’ return voyage. The ‘French’ epithet was not universal: in France it was known as the ‘Neopolitan evil;’ in the Netherlands, the ‘Spanish pox;’ in Central Asia it was deemed Russian; and in East Asia it was known as the ‘Portuguese disease.’ Thus syphilis poetry marks an interesting shift in collective identity.

* Fracastoro, Syphilis, or the French Disease, 55.



Cummins, J.S.. “Pox and Paranoia in Renaissance Europe.” History Today, Vol. 38 Issue 8. August 1988.

Fracastoro, Girolamo. Syphilis, or the French Disease, trans. Geoffrey Eatough. Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1984.

Knell, Robert J.. “Syphilis in Renaissance Europe: rapid evolution of an introduced sexually transmitted disease?” Proceedings Biological Sciences Vol. 271, No. 4. May, 2004.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 36, No. 2. Apr., 1995.

Image from: Artstor. “The Syphilitic Man (The French Disease) [Der Syphilitiker].” Artstor Digital Library. Accessed Dec. 6th, 2018.;prevRouteTS=1544122609535

Khipu in New Spain

Unknown maker (Inka),
c. 1400-1532.
Cotton or wool cords, knotted, twisted and dyed. 85 x 108 cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art

While very few remain in the present, Khipu were very important and widespread bureaucratic tools of the Inka Empire (c. 1418-1572). Made of cotton or wool cords, khipu were organized along a primary cord that housed a series of pendant cords, which could in turn host up to 10-12 layers of subsidiary cords. Khipu communicated numerical data from the provinces of the empire by delineating particular values on the basis of cord color, knot type, and placement.

Citizens of the empire were organized into units of 10, 50, 100, and furthermore up to the total population of each of the 80 provinces. Each of these units had an appointed leader. The organization of khipu follows this model, with the smallest subsidiary cords representing the smallest data set and the primary cord the conglomerate of data.

Only specialized scribes – selected by officials for their integrity and talent – were allowed be khipumayaq, or khipu makers. Furthermore, the ability to read and interpret khipu was a specialized skill. These khipumayaq worked in specific teams to ensure that all data sets were counted by multiple officials. Each khipumayaq team was only responsible for and able to read and create a section of the total khipu, in order to maintain checks and balances. Additionally, each team inspected the work of the team before them. For these reasons, the Spanish census makers who observed khipu being used in the sixteenth-century emphasized its reliability and accuracy.

Khipu were transported back to Cusco along the Inka Empire’s sophisticated system of roads and runners. These runners transported the khipu and were able to communicate numerical data to different provinces and officials.

Because khipu is an unconventional system of accounting, it was considered sufficient evidence by the Spanish of the lack of civilization in the Andean region to justify the subjugation of the Inkan people into the encomienda system. Due to the specialized nature of its construction and limited legibility, Spanish surveyors regularly classified khipu as less than a writing system. Because it needed to be recited by khipumayaq, khipu was also closely associated with the oral tradition, which was considered an unreliable source of information by western audiences. Spanish writers also compared the khipu to women’s prayer beads.

While the Third Lima Council’s order to destroy “idolatrous” khipu in 1583 may have played a role in their scarcity today, recent scholarship suggests a civil war immediately before the Spanish conquest is probably a more substantial reason for their absence. Their early disappearance would also explain why the Spanish failed to recognize khipu’s significance.



Brokaw, Galen. A History of the Khipu. Cambridge Latin American Studies, 2010.

Cobo, Bernabé. History of the Inca Empire: An Account of the Indians’ Customs and Their Origin, Together with a Treatise on Inca Legends, History, and Social Institutions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

de la Vega, Garcilaso. Royal Commentaries of the Yncas. Translated by Clements Markham. England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Harvard University. “What is a Khipu?” Khipu Database Project. Last modified September 2018.

Image from: Artstor. “Inka Khipu (Fiber Recording Device).” Artstor Digital Library. Accessed Dec. 6th, 2018.;prevRouteTS=1544122826172