The Renaissance

No two dates for the Renaissance ever seem to coincide. If we judge from art and literature, Giotto and Dante would place the starting date in the fourteenth century. If we follow the reasoning of Hans Baron that the Renaissance is a reflection of a civic image, the date shifts to 1405. Probably everyone would agree that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci belong in the Renaissance, but if we turn to science the greatest change comes with Galileo, who lived after the Reformation! Very artificially, let us put this period at 1400 to 1550.

Two changes in European disease ecology stand out strongly. Both result from the new trade and exploration involving the Far East and the Americas. On the one hand, Europe became a major exporter of its endemic diseases to the Americas and appears to have acquired two diseases in return.

It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that the role of the introduction of European diseases such as smallpox into the Americas was a factor in the ability of the tiny European armies to conquer empires inhabited by millions of persons. Since it appears that the native American population had no previous exposure to such pathogens, the results were disastrous, and estimates have gone so far as to suggest that in the century after the establishment of contact with the Americas, up to 95 percent of the population of the major centers of American civilizations had perished. In part, the shift from ruler to ruled (or, in effect, enslaved) probably worsened the situation, as did the forced adoption of European religion, language, and customs. Europe's extensive prior experience with infectious diseases was to prove catastrophic later when, for example, the Polynesian peoples were exposed to measles. Smallpox was probably the most disastrous disease for the post-Columbian Indians.

Within a few years of Columbus's discoveries, Europe perceived itself to be plagued by two new diseases, namely syphilis and typhus. The debate over syphilis has raged for many years, with some claiming that it was an import from the Americas, and others claiming that it was either first recognized as a disease entity at the end of the fifteenth century or was a new disease — the result of a mutation. When one considers the fact that skeletal evidence may show the existence of syphilis in pre-Columbian America, whereas no skeleton from Europe before 1495 has ever shown osseous changes, the first hypothesis seems more reasonable.

Typhus was also seen as new. Here the question is more difficult. First, it is not clear at this time whether recognition of typhus preceded the discovery of the New World. In any case, Europe's ties with new trading partners very likely caused typhus to appear in western Europe. Furthermore, typhus was not conclusively differentiated from typhoid fever until the nineteenth century, and thus the question of recognizing a new disease is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, it was perceived as new, and that in itself is of some importance.

In the case of syphilis and typhus, the perception of new diseases helped to end the rather static medical models of the time. They stimulated considerable written discussion and, of course, the poem from which the name syphilis comes. The perception of these diseases as "new" aspects of the human disease experience is perhaps most significant, but it is not clear at what point this perception began. Plague was known, at least in writing, from centuries past when it struck again in 1347, but syphilis and typhus were perceived as new. Probably the most important aspect of the diseases in Europe is the fact that the quality of Renaissance thought permitted observation to allow what mindset would have prohibited in the past.

Syphilis seems to have had a much more fulminant course than would be expected now. This again suggests a new disease in a previously unexposed society. As time passed, the pressure of the disease probably altered European population genetics toward genetic makeups capable, in most cases, of staving off the organism or coexisting with it.

From the point of view of disease ecology, the Renaissance marks the era of new diseases in two senses. The following years would see more and more precise and, to modern physicians, identifiable descriptions of diseases that had no doubt been extant for many years. Medicine did not, except in exceedingly rare instances, prove capable of combatting them, but at least it differentiated them.

The second sense of new diseases lies in the European export of diseases to previously unexposed peoples. F. Braudel (1979) has argued convincingly that, of the great civilizations of around the year 1500, Europe excelled only in its shipping. That shipping made it richer and more powerful, and permitted it to devastate the Americas and, later, other lands with its own combination of infectious diseases. Although the appearance of cycles of epidemic diseases, often from elsewhere, mark the history of ancient Greece, Rome, and the medieval world, the Europe of the Renaissance and later tended to be a potent exporter of disease.

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