Tag Archives: syphilis

Why Queen Elizabeth remained a virgin

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 alone may be taken as a synonym for sex, for none of the other cardinal sins. Greed, for example, which expanded exponentially at that time, while labelled sinful, while deplored by writers of government policy and lashed from the pulpit, was not, as was sex, the inevitable route 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, even in just thinking about it, ripe for damnation.

This is truly bizarre. How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is something that humans, or any earthly creatures, can do without? Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––one that, because it alone brings life into existence, should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period––how did the religious reformers of the 16th century manage to persuade so many that it was something to be feared and hated?

More to the point, what led them to this bizarre, even dangerous, position––dangerous 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 holy matrimony. Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were chiefly sexual practices 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, having eaten the apple, they realize that 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 unwanted children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents as 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 went straight to hell unless they had been baptized first. As Calvin put 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).

Apparently murder was less distressing to Calvin’s God than either theft or sex.

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 in men they were seen as tempting them to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation. We may see this as a perverse belief system and something that our culture has (largely) outgrown, but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking today, doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects.

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 they can be as individuals, as a group men are competitive beasts, 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, still very much alive and functioning today in evangelical churches throughout the mid-west, will get an insight by viewing videos of current evangelical preaching on You Tube.)

The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many 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 if we’re to see it clearly, particularly when certain aspects remain hidden as is true with the authorship question. 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, the plague excepted, their effect on history is generally 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 prepared to avoid it, for its habit, if not its cause, was understood so well that those who could would simply pack up and head for the country, where they would remain until it died out.

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), and from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. It was most virulent in the heat of mid-to-late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather. Plague years were sometimes preceded by an 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.

Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since it was difficult to adequately protect unguarded manors. 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 blamed for spreading the contagion. Bodies buried in churchyards were put into common graves as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, covered with a sprinkling of lime and dirt to prevent contagion. The Court spent the worst part of plague years holed up at Windsor Palace.

Malaria

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 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, he or she would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives. A severe attack could mean death to a child or someone already ailing from another disease.

Smallpox

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 them disfigured, “pockmarked,” for life. The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562 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 was infected while attending her mistress. It’s said that her face was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil over her face.

Syphilis

While these were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries, a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared in Naples in 1495, from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe. Concentrated in the port towns where sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes (first noted in England in 1497) who then spread it to clients who took it to their wives and mistresses throughout the nation. By this means, within a generation it had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.

Unlike smallpox or the plague, which struck suddenly, death occuring within days, syphilis was slow; slow to appear; slow to develop. Understanding of its deadly nature must also have been slow. Even today arguments continue regarding 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, on the genitals. Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured of one of the lesser STDs, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners, or what it could do to their families, since a man could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease.

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 the plague come fairly quickly to a crisis after which the patient is either dead or gets well, the bacilli that cause syphilis continue to spread deep within the cells of various parts of the body where they proliferate, gradually over the years bringing about the more obvious symptoms, the stinking, suppurating sores that won’t heal, or the deterioration of the bones of the face, most notably the nose. The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.

Because the symptoms could vary so widely depending on what organs had been compromised, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth (the miscarriages, the stillbirths, the sickly infants, the children who only 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 sex itself was the curse, God’s punishment on Adam and Eve for aspiring to forbidden knowledge. It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were so willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial.

It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have what was the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the results might be should she become pregnant. Much as the English historians continue to deny it, seeking ever more arcane explanations for Henry’s insane behavior towards the end of his life, no one who researches the matter can fail to agree that the disgusting nature of his illness, the troubles all his wives had conceiving and if they conceived, giving birth to healthy infants, were all due to the disease that all the Court either knew for a fact or guessed, was due to syphilis contracted during one of the many sexual peccadilloes with which he entertained himself in his youth. And even as the delicate sensibilities of the historians continue to prevail, there can be no argument that most of the Court under Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth would have believed the cause of the king’s insanity and his wives failures to produce a healthy heir to have been syphilis. This then, was the true cause why Elizabeth not only never married, but also why, despite her obvious delight in surrounding herself with handsome men, she would never have allowed herself to have sex (that is exchange bodily fluids) with any of them, taking refuge in the Greek myths of virginal goddesses like Diana and Phoebe.

This is the primary reason why sex was forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court; why the word “filthy” was inevitably used whenever reformers referred to sex; why books of sexy stories like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor; and why those who transgressed her anti-sex edicts were punished so severely. This is also largely why the men (and women) who translated these works and had them published invariably hid their identities and why printers and publishers used ambiguous language on the title pages and in the front material of these and , so that the reform censors would pass them without reading further.

It also explains how the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse and intensified by the frustration of repression, 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, 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! 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 heap of dung that was the terror inspired by this horrible disease.

Shakespeare and “don’t ask don’t tell”

An important article, “The Bisexuality of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and Implications for de Vere’s Authorship” by Richard M. Waugaman, MD, is to be published in the upcoming October issue of Psychoanalytic Review, 97 (5).  Dr. Waugaman is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.  His 98 scholarly publications began with an article stemming from his senior thesis on Nietzsche and Freud.  He and his wife, Elisabeth Pearson, scholar of Medieval French Lit and an award-winning children’s book author, live in Maryland, near Washington DC.

Dr. Waugaman’s path to Oxford runs from Freud (doctoral dissertation) to William Niederkorn (NYTimes article, Feb. 2002), to Roger Stritmatter (Oxford’s Geneva Bible) to a readership at the Folger.  Now this prestigious academic journal has agreed to publish simultaneously not one, but two of his articles on authorship issues, one on Samuel Clemens’s use of the pseudonym Mark Twain, the other on the psychology of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and their connection to Oxford’s biography, the accusations of pederasty made against him made by his enemies, plus the fact that his daughter was being promoted as a wife to the Earl of Southampton, the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.

News of the publication of Dr. Waugaman’s articles in an academic journal is a sign that the wall surrounding Fortress Academia may be weakening. “Things seem to be changing among my analytic colleagues,” says Waugaman. “I now find them far more receptive.  They react as though there is at least “reasonable doubt’’about the authorship, which is a fine place to begin.  And I’m optimistic about the historians as well.”  That Waugaman speaks from and to the psychology community is a double plus, since that’s one of the two arenas that we can conceivably hope will help us salvage the truth about the authorship, the other being the historians.   Once post docs in the less fiction-based Humanities departments begin delving in the English archives we’ll have to rely less on conjecture.

It’s with gratitude that I read Dr. Waugaman’s essay since, as he emphasizes, the nature of the Bard’s sexuality has been so denied, distorted, ignored, or misinterpreted by so-called Shakespeare experts (including some Oxfordians) over the centuries that a straightforward approach to the obvious by someone of authority is clearly in order.  Waugaman asks why Shakespeare commentators have consistently avoided the obvious, that since the Sonnets reflect that the Poet was having (or at least desiring) concurrent sexual relations with a man and a woman––ipso facto, Shakespeare was a bisexual, or at least was behaving like one.  As he states: “One solution to this cognitive dissonance for the past four centuries has been denial or avoidance of Shakespeare’s bisexuality, and of his actual identity.”  By connecting this massive “blind spot,” as he calls it, to the Academy’s refusal to dig any deeper than the unlikely Stratford biography, Waugaman makes an important connection.  We’ve been subjected to James Shapiro’s efforts to psychoanalyze the authorship community, now lets see what a psychoanalyst has to say about Shapiro and his colleagues.  For any who wish to read his argument in full, Dr. Waugaman will email you a pdf; contact him at rwmd at comcast dot net.

Don’t ask don’t tell

When we add to the evidence in the Sonnets all the gender-bending in the plays, the passionate “male bonding” in Coriolanus, and the obvious homosexual love of the Antonios in Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice, it would seem that at the very least, homosexual desire was something the author understood.  This may have been shocking to the Reformation clergy who acted as censors for what got published in the early 17th century, to the Victorian literary critics, and apparently also to persons who grew up in the 1950s in America, but that some readers today are still grasping for some other interpretation, desperate to avoid the fact that––Gasp! Choke!––Shakespeare had a sex life!––well, what can I say?  If it wasn’t so deplorable it would be funny.

As a professional in the field of human psychology, Waugaman himself is not afraid to think rationally about same-sex attraction, understanding through his years of training and professional experience that male-male love and sex is, and has always been, a factor in human nature.  So he does not attempt, as some Oxfordians have, to equate the hiding of Oxford’s name with shame over his sexuality.  Certainly the Poet is ashamed of himself for any number of unspecified misdeeds, but had he been so ashamed of his sexuality as to hide his identity solely for that reason, he would never have displayed it with such abandon in both the Sonnets and the plays, nor would he have defended it as he does in Sonnet 121:“Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d . . . .”

No, it isn’t Shakespeare who’s ashamed, nor whoever it was who first dared to publish his poems, male pronouns and all, in 1609.  It’s been the censors, scholars, critics and publishers of his works ever since who, writhing in shame, refuse to face the vital truth about the creation of the language we speak, hiding like a herd of nerdy nincompoops behind the Stratford fable.  The question is not––should not be––was Shakespeare gay, straight or bi?  Though interesting in the same way it’s interesting where he lived or what he liked for dinner, it’s hardly important enough in the grand scheme of things to bury his identity for three centuries.  The real question is, or should be, why are we as a society so frightened by something that a small community of men do in private, something that hurts no one and that obviously gives them pleasure?

Blame it on the Reformation

From the dawn of time until the Reformation the English were just as sexy and life-loving as any other European culture, celebrating the turn of the seasons with carnival-like holidays that lasted for several days on end, much as they had done, as all of Europe had done, in rituals that went back to the Stone Age.  Despite the very real benefits to the community from these moments of psychological release, those reform ministers of Church and State who took power under Elizabeth were bound and determined to rid the nation of this “merry-making” and everything else that brought the people pleasure.   As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it was the loss of these communal celebrations that contributed most to the success of the London Stage and Shakespeare’s early plays, and it was the constant pressure of the animosity of this newly established Protestant Church and State fraternity that throughout Elizabeth’s reign was the greatest threat to both Shakespeare and his Stage.

But this was only one manifestation of a puritanical attitude towards pleasure that gripped the nation, and in fact all of Europe, beginning in the late 15th century.  In England it caused the reformers under Elizabeth’s forerunner Edward VI to shift from the more life-affirmative Lutheran theology to the grim tenets of Calvinism with its focus on sin and damnation.  Nor was it a product of the Protestant Reformation alone, for the European countries that remained Catholic went through much the same revolution, beginning with Savanarola in Florence at the turn of the 16th century, and continuing in bursts with the Inquisition in Spain and Rome and the witch burnings in Scandinavia and France, all part of a reaction against the life-loving humanism, art, and intellectual excitement of the Renaissance.  And at the heart of this reaction was a harsh new attitude towards sex, particularly homosexual sex.

The early pagans, far from seeing sex as dangerous or disgusting, worshipped it––male-female sex, that is––as the source of life, a view that lasted throughout the medieval period in works like the Roman de la Rose, the Courtly love tradition passed on in the Arthur and Orlando tales, and the worship of Mary and other female saints.  So far as we know, no past or present culture has ever openly condoned homosexual behavior.  As Philip Slater shows in his brilliant The Glory of Hera, even the ancient Greeks, who made it the cornerstone of their culture for several centuries weren’t all that comfortable with it.   But whatever shame was attached to it then was mainly directed towards the humiliating position of the men who played the “feminine” or passive role, the “ingles” and “ganymedes,” with little or no shame attaching to the dominant partner.  It must also be noted that, whatever the official attitude, male-male sex has been the primary means for societies throughout the ages to maintain population control.  Nevertheless, simply frowning on something is not the same as fearing and hating it or reviling to the extreme that drove the 19th-century Victorians to hang  accused homosexuals or tie them to posts where crowds of hundreds of screaming fanatics were encouraged to stone them to death (Crompton 21-2).

What caused the English to turn from sin-forgiving Catholicism to to the fiery furnace of Calvinism, which held such dark views of God and life that because human beings are brought into being through sexual intercourse they’re damned from birth, that is, unless they withhold themselves from any kind of sensory pleasure, including, of course, sex for pleasure.  What on earth could have driven the merry English, and other nations as well,  to fall prey to such a wretched belief system, one that, despite the incursions of secular science and modern existentialism, continues to drive many of our communal societal fears and prejudices to this very day?

Syphilis

I believe this fear and hatred of sex had its origins in the spread of a deadly new strain of syphilis that was first documented in Naples in 1494, and that spread rapidly through the ports of Europe in the 16th century as sailors and travellers transported the deadly microbe from the whorehouses and bathhouses of one seaport to another.

The people of ages past were not ignorant fools.  They did not need to study medicine to understand from direct experience that this was a venereal disease unlike any they’d ever known.  It would have taken several generations, say three, taking us into the mid-1500s, for people to realize just how terrible was this “great pox” (as opposed to the “small pox,” that only killed or disfigured) ; how it not only destroyed the person who had it, but how it could be passed through intercourse to that person’s mate, rendering her sterile, or if she managed to have children, made them susceptible to any number of dangerous illnesses, the girls sterile, or if they gave birth, possibly to diseased or stillborn babies.  The most terrible disease until that time, the black plague, either killed within days of contracting it or allowed recovery, while syphilis acted slowly over months and years, rotting the body, and the mind, from within.  Many cures were tried, but nothing seemed to work but mercury salts, which had such terrible side effects that it was arguable which was worse, the disease or its cure.  In fact, no sure cure would be found until the 20th century.

What were the 16th-century Europeans to think?  Believing as so many did that God was still taking a close personal interest in their behavior, what other reason could they come up with than that He was punishing them, and of course, because it it was through sex that the disease was spread, with its first appearance occuring on the genitals, that they were being punished for their sexuality.  Fear spread like wildfire through Europe, focusing on the most vulnerable, prostitutes and homosexuals.

Probably because the issue was sex and the disease could be hidden as other diseases could not, there are not the contemporary references to syphilis that there are to the plague, malaria, etc., and because we’re so used to the pervasive anti-sex attitude bequeathed us by the Reformation, and in America by the emigrating Puritans, we tend not to notice it in the texts from the period.  It wasn’t until I began reading the works of Protestant reformers and pedagogues that I realized that their use of the word “filthy” invariably referred to sexual behavior of every sort (Calvin did except the need for married couples to produce children, but God forbid they should have any pleasure in the process).  What’s inherently filthy about sex?  Waugamon quotes David Bevington on the horror Elizabethan England displayed towards sodomy, how they described it with words like “leprous,” “cancerous,” a “plague spot,” the same words used to describe the symptoms of syphilis.

Déjà vu all over again

In a sense this issue is where I came in.  My first literary love was Lord Byron (yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a long dead writer).  Byron in his letters and journals gave himself to the world of letters in a way that few have ever done.  For three or four years in the late 70s and early 80s I read everything I could find by him and about him.  I own most of the volumes of his letters and journals as edited by Leslie Marchand and am the proud possessor of a personal letter from Marchand, typed by his own hand.  Finally discovering in 1985 that Byron’s self-exile was the only way (other than suicide) that he could escape the terrible fate of men accused of sodomy; that his memoirs were burned by his friends out of anxiety over what he’s revealed about their sexuality; and most of all, that the truth about him was buried by his biographers until it was revealed by Louis Crompton (in 1985) in Byron and Greek Love, makes this issue over the Sonnets and their author’s identity seem like the conclusion to a story that, for me, began with Byron, but for English Literature, began with Shakespeare.

It’s sad that I feel it necessary to add that I myself was married to a (male) jazz musician and composer for 20 years by whom I had four daughters, that I’ve had two long-term sexually fulfilling relationships, both with men, one my husband, which is not to say that I never had to withstand the kind of passing attraction to a “lovely” guy or two that the Poet documents in the Sonnets.

The hellish focus on sin and damnation that that accompanied the Reformation and that threatened to destroy all merry-making (and surely would have if not for the courage of Shake-spear and his patrons), deserves a more thorough examination than is possible here, but I think it should at least be mentioned, for what else could have caused the frenzy of fear and hatred that has fueled English (and American) homophobia ever since.  Surely this and only this is the ultimate reason for the denial of Shakespeare’s nature by the Academy, and by extention, as Dr. Waugaman has realized, coming from his own perspective, their continued refusal to examine the truth about his identity.