Syphilis in Faerie Land: Edmund Spenser and the Syphilography of Elizabethan England
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Criticism 46.4 (2004) 597-632



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Syphilis in Faerie Land:

Edmund Spenser and the Syphilography of Elizabethan England

Harvard University

I. Syphilitic Apocalypse

Near the end of the sixteenth century, the spread of syphilis in England seemed to many contemporary observers to have exploded into epidemic proportions.1 London surgeon William Clowes reported in 1585 that there were not enough beds in London's hospitals to accommodate the number of syphilis patients requiring treatment: "[I]n the Hospitall of Saint Barthelmew in London, there hath bene cured of this disease, by mee, and three other, with in fiue yeares, to the number of one thousande and more: I speake nothing of Saint Thomas hospitall, and other houses about the Citie, wherein an infinite multitude are dayly in cure."2 The symptomology of early modern syphilis—a constructed pathology most commonly known to English writers as the "pox," the "French disease," or the "foul disease"3 —inscribed a narrative of progressive deterioration on the body of the patient. Beginning with burning fever and agonizing bodily aches, the disease eventually identified itself with the appearance of festering, scabby pox on the genitals and elsewhere. Over a period of months or years, the syphilitic body would be transformed by the decomposition of bone and flesh, blindness, hair loss, internal rot, and an incremental deformation of the corporeal surface—a transformation that frequently concluded in painful death. Conventionally characterized as a malady of bad or polluted blood with resonance of divine wrath, the pox came to be seen as destroying not only individual sufferers but the English nation as well. As Clowes writes: "It is wonderfull to consider the huge multitudes of such as be infected with it, and that dayly increase, to the great daunger of the common wealth, & the staine of the whole nation." The syphilis epidemic, which "increaseth yet daily, spreading it selfe throughout all Englande, [End Page 597] and ouerfloweth (as I thinke) the whole world," appeared in the eyes of certain Elizabethans to be something very like a sign of imminent apocalypse.4

One of these Elizabethans was Edmund Spenser, who contributes to the cultural fantasy of syphilitic apocalypse in Book I of The Faerie Queene (1590), "The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse." This portion of Spenser's poem is heavily invested in apocalyptic iconography, and among ubiquitous symbols imported from the Bible's Book of Revelation are ample traces of the fourth horseman—Pestilence—in its contemporary incarnation as the pox.5 The great dragon who has usurped Una's realm can be read allegorically as the carnal scourge debilitating English nationhood, a marauding beast crippling the country. We are told that the dragon has imprisoned Una's parents, the king and queen, and "With murdrous rauine and deuouring might / Their kingdome spoild, and countrey wasted quight" (I.vii.44.4-5).6 During the battle with Redcrosse Knight, the dragon is painted in terms that evoke the spread of polluted syphilitic blood, for the dragon breathes "pestilence" (I.xi.45.1), and his "body monstrous, horrible, and vast, / Which to increase his wondrous greatnesse more, / Was swolne with wrath, and poyson, and with bloudy gore" (I.xi.8.7-9). When Redcrosse eventually wounds the beast, "A gushing riuer of blacke goarie blood, / That drowned all the land, wheron he stood" (I.xi.22.4-5) pours forth, thoroughly soaking the country with "durty bloud" (I.xi.23.8).

Spenser's vocabulary of "poisoned" and contaminated blood resonates with descriptions of pox infection by early modern medical writers. For example, the German humanist and knight Ulrich von Hutten claims that "this infyrmytie [the pox] commeth of corrupte, burnte, and enfecte bloude ... for in myne opinion this syckenes is no other thynge, but a postumation and rotting of vnpure bloud."7 He further depicts the pocky sores resulting from infected blood as "full of venemus poyson" (fol. 4v). Scottish surgeon Peter Lowe, writing in 1596, also uses the term "venim" for syphilitic blood and concurs with Dutch physician...