Sin, syphilis, and the sonnet cycle

In studying the Elizabethan period a few things have come clear that were not before, among them the peculiar nature of the Reformation focus on Sin, or to be more precise, on sins related to sex.  In fact, in Reformation tracts the word sin itself may be taken as a synonym for sex alone, for little or no attention was paid by the Reformation to any of the other cardinal sins.  Greed, for example, expanded exponentially as Reformation authorities turned away from ancient moral traditions of liberality, beginning the centuries-long effort to force the government to do what the Church and previous centuries of noblesse oblige had felt was their responsibility.  This and the other sins were lashed from the pulpit, but only sex led immediately to the fiery furnace.  And not just illicit sex, but all sex!  According to Calvin, any pleasure from sex, even between husband and wife, was considered Lust, making those who found pleasure in it ripe for damnation.

This is truly bizarre.  How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, the force that makes everything happen, is something that they can possibly do without?  Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––because sex alone brings life into existence, it should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period.  So how did they manage to turn so many towards hating and fearing it?

More to the point, what led them to the bizarre, even dangerous, position, that doing entirely without sex was a good thing, considering that without sex, or more particularly, without desire, there would eventually be no more Protestants?  The Catholic Church was less enthusiastic about sex than its pagan forbears, but did agree that procreation at least was sacred, though only when it took place within the bonds of marriage.  Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were those things that prevent procreation: masturbation, homosexuality, coitus interruptus, and most forms of birth control.

Though it reached its peak during the Reformation, the seeds of this anti-sex campaign had been sown long before by the Hebrew bible in which Adam and Eve “fall” into sin when apparently they first notice they have genitals and then figure out what to do with them.  Throughout the centuries dominated by the Church, unmarried men and women were segregated into communities of monks and nuns.  This did not prevent desire, but at least it made consummation more difficult.  The Church was also largely willing to care for the children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents to be loyal servants of the Faith.  But once Luther and Calvin got hold of the Church, all forgiveness was impossible.  Even infants who died shortly after birth (if unbaptised) went straight to the fiery furnace because they were products of sin.  As Calvin saw it (1536)––

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21).

Note that sexual sins come first, murder apparently being less distressing to God.

Nor was the Reformation the source of this pan-European anti-sex campaign, for at about the same time that the Reformation took up the fight, the Catholic Inquisition, instituted to weed out religious heresy, erupted in an hysterical pogrom directed against women, burning them at the stake as often for witchcraft or “misleading their children,” as for practising pagan or Jewish rituals. “Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed.  About 80% of those killed were women.  Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France [and] 1,000 in England, . . . .”

Why women?  The only plausible answer is that because they arouse desire they were seen as tempting men to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation.  We may see these ideas as perverse and something that our culture has outgrown (though certainly not entirely), but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking now doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects on history and on society, some of which we continue to deal with.

That back around the dawn of history the Patriarchy managed to eliminate women from the hierarchy of all the modern religions, and gradually from all positions of authority, can be attributed to simple male animal territoriality.  However sweet and reasonable men may be as individuals, as a group they tend to revert to animal competition, so relegating women to the kitchen and laundry was a simple matter of eliminating one big chunk of the competition.  What happened in the 16th century was different.  This was hacking at the roots of the tree of life while rendering desolate millions of addle-headed believers.  (Those interested in the realities of this terrible belief system will get a helpful insight from the video To Hell and Back. )

The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many ordinary people accepted them.  However radical, the answer is simple enough: one word: syphilis.

Disease a factor in history

Understanding the diseases rampant at a particular time is necessary to seeing the entire picture of an era, particularly one where certain aspects remain perplexing as is true with the authorship of Shakespeare and many other works.  The diseases rampant in 16th century England were, in no particular order: the bubonic plague, the ague (malaria), the small pox (smallpox), and the great pox (syphilis).  Though there were certainly others, these seem to have had the most consistent influence on the culture, though, except for the plague, their effect on history has mostly been ignored.

Although the plague was no less terrible than when it first struck Europe in the 14th century, by Elizabethan times it hardly affected the lives of those who could afford to avoid it.  Because its habit, if not its cause, was so well known, those who could would simply leave the more populous areas of cities and towns for some quiet place in the country where they could stay until it died out.  The Court spent the worst part of most plague years at Windsor, the most heavily fortified of the Elizabethan palaces, where it was easy to enforce the banishment of any visitors coming from plague rife areas.

It tended to strike every ten years or so, first appearing with warm weather in the funky areas around the docks where ships brought it from abroad (exactly how was still a mystery); from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city.  It was most virulent in the late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather.  Plague years were sometimes announced by a small outbreak in the summer of the preceding year, to return more destructively the following year, after which it died out.  Or it could return the year following a particularly harsh outbreak for a lesser outbreak that then died out.

Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since as many of the city functionaries as could would leave for the country, leaving houses and municipal buildings unguarded.  It was hard to get workers to dig graves and otherwise help get rid of the bodies, so the air stank of rotting corpses, which was then blamed for spreading the disease.  Bodies buried in churchyards were put in a common grave as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, to prevent contagion.  The plague plays an important role in our story as its the background to both the phony death of Robert Greene and the very real assassination of Christopher Marlowe.


The English were also used to malaria, as is seen by how often their letters mention the ague.  It’s worth suggesting that only those English who lived far from wetlands, sluggish streams or stagnant ponds were entirely free from the periodic attacks of joint pain, chills and fever, which as yet had no cure.  Once bitten by the anopheles mosquito, rife in England at that time, the 16th-century individual would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives.  A bad attack could mean death.  Oxford’s bouts, mentioned in his letters (“sickness” 1569, “fever” 1575), probably originated when he lived with his tutor on the banks of the Thames across from one of England’s largest wetlands.  His phrase “I freeze, then I fry,” used a number of times to describe the pangs of love, is also an excellent description of an attack of malaria.


This highly contagious disease was also well known to the English of the 16th century.  It occured sometimes occasionally and sometimes in epidemics, always by direct or airborne infection through contact within 6 feet or so of someone who was sick.  The progress was rapid, over a period of three days or so, and and often fatal.  Pox, an alternate spelling of pocks, identifies a disease most notable for a rash or pimples, which, with smallpox, covered the face and other parts of the body, often leaving pits or scars.  The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562, shortly before Oxford came to Court, which caused her ministers to fear for her life, but she recovered, apparently without scars.  The one who did get scarred was her faithful lady in waiting, Lady Mary Sidney, mother of Philip and Mary, who caught the disease while attending her mistress.  It’s said that Lady Mary was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil to cover her face.  Philip too carried smallpox scars on his face (thus Aguecheek from Twelfth Night.)

These were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries.


But then at some point in the late 15th century a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared (first recorded in Naples in 1495)  from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe.  Concentrated in the port towns, sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes, who then spread it through intercourse to travelling clients who took it to all parts of the nation.  While the rats that spread plague bred mostly in poor and congested areas, sex knows no social boundaries, so within a generation this horrific disease had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.

Because the lesions were hidden under clothing, because the disease included long periods of latency, and because its obvious source was sexual contact which meant that it was tremendously shameful, very little solid proof of its effects has survived, particularly where the victim was a person of importance.  For instance, the obvious fact that the terrible behavior of Henry VIII, his his paranoia towards the end, the stillbirths of his wives and the sicknesses of his children, was due to syphilis, was shrouded in silence during his own time, and still to this day is denied by those who prefer a pleasant lie to an unpleasant truth.

Unlike smallpox or the plague that struck suddenly with death occuring within days, syphilis is slow, slow to show itself, slow to develop, so understanding of its nature must also have been slow.  Even today there’s argument about its symptoms, which are often hard to diagnose.  Where smallpox appears openly on the face and hands, the great pox first appeared in those areas most hidden from view, the genitals.  Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners.  Follow the links if you don’t know what syphilis can do to the body and the mind, and, because a father could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease, what it did to families.  Most of us know less about it today than they did in Elizabeth’s time since the discovery of antibiotics has made it so easy to cure.

Due to its varying symptomology, the pox, as it was most commonly termed, could well have masqueraded for years as one of several other venereal diseases for which there were folk remedies, so its devastating nature would have become apparent only gradually over time.  For while smallpox and plague pass through a fairly rapid crisis, following which the patient is either dead or gets well, syphilis sinks deep into the body’s cells, gradually over the years bringing about stinking suppurating sores that won’t heal and often eating away at the bones of the face, most particularly the nose.  The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.  (Interestingly, it seems that one sure cure for syphilis is the introduction of the malaria virus, so knowing that Oxford suffered from childhood from the burning fevers of malaria makes it impossible that he ever had syphilis, as Alan Nelson likes to think.)

Because the symptoms could vary so widely, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth––the miscarriages, the sick babies, the stillbirths, the children who got sick later in life––were slow to be understood, it would have taken time for the pox to have shown itself in all its horror to the religious leaders who could only explain it in terms of original sin, that is, sex itself.  It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were ready to believe that sex was the ultimate sin, and so were willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial to escape the dangers of hellfire that were laid before them.  It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the result might be should she too become pregnant.  Thus were religion and politics, ostensibly the reasons why the Reformation was so negative towards sex, only the most apparent cause.  The basic cause was syphilis.

It’s hard for us today to understand this attitude.  We live in a very different time.  The secularization of society has freed many from the old shibboleths about masterbation causing blindness and insanity while the pill and antibiotics have eliminated much anxiety over sex.  At a time when virgins over twenty are ashamed of their inexperience and the more sex the better seems to be the general attitude, it’s difficult to understand a time when almost everyone truly believed that having sex for anything but creating a family was wicked and those who couldn’t restrain themselves were concerned they were going to burn in hell for eternity.

But if we don’t see this, we won’t understand how powerfully Shakespeare’s positive attitude towards sex must have affected his audience.   Nor will we see how necessary it was for the Queen and her courtiers to abstain, or understand why those who transgressed were punished so severely, or why books that contained stories about sexual behaviors like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, or why the men who translated and published these works, or who wrote original works of their own, thought it best to hide their identities.

It was this universal fear of sex that drove the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse (both physical, political, and religious) and, intensified by the frustrations of repression, to burst forth in long sequences of sexually charged poetry, long narrative poems about love and sex like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, tales that imitated Greek romance like Sidney’s Arcadia and Robert Greene’s pamphlets, and why during the decade of sonnet cycles addressed to cold disdainful dames, some, like Astrophil and Stella and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, exceeded 100 verses!  It’s why every story that contained sexual content introduced itself by claiming that the content was useful in deterring vice by showing what happened to those who sinned, even when the story did nothing of the sort.

Repressed by the sex hatred of the reformers and the fears of the Queen, desires that could not be allowed expression in any other way found release in reams of verse, some of it glorious––the lotus flowering from the dung of fear and repression.

2 thoughts on “Sin, syphilis, and the sonnet cycle

  1. Dear Ms. Hughes:
    I’ve this minute read the Times Lit. Supp. of June 30 (arrived today). At p. 29 it has review by James Sharpe, U. of York, of Martin Ingram’s Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England 1470-1600 (Camb. U. Pr 978 1 107 17987 5: “…a publication of massive significance. It is a rich and multifaceted book,….”

    “…its key objective is” “in particular to query the notion that a distinctive, and peculiarly intensive, level of sexual regulation followed the Reformation or, more specifically, the establishment of a successful Protestant regime under Elizabeth I.” “It is well known that the Puritan regime which followed the execution of Chas. I was uncharacteristically lax over sexual controls–….If Martin Ingram’s findings are accurate, it would seem that the desire to regulate sexual behavior in the courts, so marked in 1500, was in decline earlier than has hitherto been thought.”

    Sharpe presents this book as a sort of sequel to Ingram’s 1987 Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640. Review does not mention VD.

    You might find the text of use. Even if not, one might examine it to prepare against critics mining it for material to counter your interpretations.
    George Steven Swan

    1. Thanks, George. It’s clear that the heavy-handed anti-sex campaign of the Calvinist early English Reformation had eased considerably by the end of Elizabeth’s reign (as reflected in the late play Measure for Measure), and that under James it swung to the opposite lax attitude as reflected in the major plays of the Jacobean era.

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