The different Opinions advanced at various periods on the question of the Antiquity and Origin of the Venereal Disease may at the outset be brought under two main divisions, according as the disease is supposed to have been already known to the Ancients and from their time onwards to have been continuously observed, or on the other hand regarded as having first arisen in the ninetieth year of the XVth. Century. Both views were framed much about the same time, and depended largely on the position and education of the person delivering judgement. The former may be styled the view of the learned, the latter the popular view, though indeed at their first inception it was not so much scientific reasons in either case as men’s prejudices that formed their basis.
The few really learned Physicians of the end of XVth. Century and beginning of the XVIth. took as the theme of their study not Nature but rather the medical Writings of the Greeks and Arabians, a field that had long been left unappropriated by them, and all were far too firmly convinced, that Hippocrates, and still more Galen and Avicenna had already included in their Works everything that could ever be the subject of scientific treatment at any given time.
Attention was concentrated upon the Skin Affection that was the predominant form at first, and this was naturally enough taken for a kind of Leprosy, and called sometimes Elephantiasis (Seb. Aquilanus, Phil. Beroaldus), sometimes “Formica” (Schellig, Cumanus, Gilinus, Leonicenus, Steber), by others “Saphat” (J. Widmann, Nat. Montesaurus, Jul. Tanus, Jo. de Fogueda, Sim. Pistor). Hence the view advanced subsequently by Sydenham, Haller, Plenk, Thierry, Haward, and held for a time by Sprengel, that the original form of the Venereal Disease was the “Yaws” or “Piana”, and consequently that Africa must be assigned as the original home of the disease; and in this way the Moors also were brought in as part of the concatenation. Later on, when the conviction grew up that the beginning of the Disease consists in local affections of the genital organs, it was easy to show that these had always been in existence from the most ancient times. But as no direct information on the relation between affections of the Genitals and Skin-disease was to be found in the earlier Writers, enquirers were driven to the supposition, that Syphilitic affections of the Skin had been confounded by the Ancients with Leprosy.
A view, which Becket first sought to establish on precise grounds, appeared on the contrary too bold to other investigators, who thought to find some way of evading it. This was to the effect that Leprosy under favourable conditions had changed into Venereal Disease, and the increased rarity of the former seemed to speak for this opinion. Supporters of this last view are in especial Sprengel and Choulant in his Preface to Fracastori’s “Syphilis”. Whilst the particular home of the Disease was fixed in this way by some authors, Swediaur and Beckman thought to find it in the East Indies, and held that the “Dschossam”, a familiar Indian disease, or else the “Persian Fire” must be looked upon as the original form of the Complaint. Schaufus agreed with them in part; he believed Venereal disease to have been brought by the Gypsies from India to Europe. Dr. Wizmann3 made the disease arise in the IInd. Century in Dacia, which at that date was transformed into a Roman Colony and had to welcome the licentious Roman soldiery. The excesses of these colonists, in a strange climate, and seconded by a combination of conditions favourable to epidemic sickness, produced the disease, which he says is generated to this day in its genuine form in Turkey. Accordingly Wizmann, as also Sprengel and Choulant, and to some extent Gruner, who considered the Moors to be the parents of the Venereal disease, may be regarded as taking up an intermediate position between the two extreme views, and as making a sort of transition to the opinions of those who look upon the Disease as a new one.
The special supporters of this view were, as mentioned above, the non-medical, though a considerable number of men calling themselves Physicians agreed with them, though on other grounds, differing only as to the mode in which the Disease arose. The prevailing astrological views found the original cause of the Disease in the Conjunction of the Planets, a conjunction declared beforehand by prophecy to bode disaster. With this were included as contributing to the effect Inundations, the oppressed condition of Nations, Famine and the like. The disease was called an epidemic, or what at that period was practically synonymous, a pestilential disease, a Plague, and ascribed of course to the wrath of God. There were other accounts given, that still carry some show of probability; the Disease was referred to the poisoning of wells and of wine (Caesalpinus), to the admixture of gypsum with the flour (Fallopia), or actually to indulgence in human flesh.
When coition could no longer be denied as an interposing factor, rumour resorted to all sorts of wild tales, the copulation of a courtesan with a Leper, copulation with animals, and particularly with asses, and finally with the voluptuous Indian women of America. From the latter story grew up by degrees the theory of the American origin of Venereal Disease, which found its chief supporters in Astruc and Girtanner, and in spite of Hensler’s exertions seems even yet not absolutely forgotten.