Help Me Pick a Venereal Disease

I’m currently in the midst of writing a novel set in the Tudor age, and in the story, one of my female characters gets a venereal disease. Not being much familiar with the subject myself, I thought I’d ask for help in picking the right one.


  1. It has to be a disease which was extant in that time.

  2. She gets pregnant by the man who gave it to her, but it *doesn’t *affect the baby.

  3. There has to be clear, physical signs that she has the illness (as in sores, or something along those lines.) The man would also know he had it.

  4. I don’t care if it would eventually be fatal, as she dies within a year of other causes.

Any suggestions?

[Emily Latella]
What’s this I hear about Bill Clinton playing Tudor Sex? He was on a show with that nice Mr. Letterman and he started demonstrating Tudor Sex? Why, he should be ashamed. He should…

“Uh, Miss Latella, that’s “Tenor Sax.” Mr. Clinton was playing the Tenor Saxaphone.”

Oh, well that’s different. Never mind.
[/Emily Latella]

See you at the buffet!

Syphilis was very prevalent during those times.

According to ( the symptoms for women are:

There are three stages of syphilis. Formation of the chancre is the first stage. It is highly contagious and can last from 1 to 5 weeks. The infection can be transmitted from any contact with one of the ulcers, which are teeming with spirochetes. If the ulcer is outside of the vagina or on the scrotum of the male partner, the use of condoms may not help in preventing transmission of the infection. Likewise, if the ulcer is in the mouth, merely kissing the infected individual can spread syphilis.

With most women, an early infection resolves on its own even without treatment. However, 25% will proceed to the next stage of the infection called “secondary” syphilis, which lasts from 4 to 6 weeks. This secondary stage can include hair loss, sore throat, white patches in the nose, mouth, and vagina, fever, headaches, and a skin rash. There can be lesions on the genitals that look like genital warts but are caused by spirochetes rather than the wart virus. These wart-like lesions, as well as the skin rash, are highly contagious. The rash can occur on the palms of the hands and the infection can be transmitted by casual contact.

The third stage of the infection involves the brain and heart and is usually no longer contagious. At this point, however, the infection can cause extensive damage to the internal organs, such as the brain, and can lead to death."

Hope this helps.

I believe syphilis would be bad news for the baby, though. There was an Anne Perry novel that revolved around that point.

I second the recommendation for syphilis (known to Tudors as “the pox” or “the French disease”). A bit of Googling suggests that pregnant women with untreated syphilis have a 40% chance of a stillbirth, and if the baby survives there’s a 40-70% chance it will be infected, so, while the odds are against the baby being healthy, it’s not too improbable to be believable.

Yup- if you want something with symptoms, Syphilis is pretty much your only option.

Herpes would be the other possibilty, but I’m not aware of whether that was common in the 1500s.

Apparently King Henry VIII had syphilis:

The well known theory that he suffered from syphilis was first promoted approximately 100 years after his death. More recent support for this idea has come from a greater understanding of the disease and has led to the suggestion that Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all displayed symptoms characteristic of congenital syphilis.

Herpes would probably be better, since I want the man who gave it to her to live for an additional twenty years without being debilitated.

I did some research and found that herpes existed as far back as 2,500 BC. This may be my solution.

I disagree heartily with that assesment. Firstly, Henry’s medical records (which survive in great detail) show no mercury treatments, which were the primary means of treatment for syphillis at the time. Secondly, Edward died of tuberculosis, and Mary died of what was most likely uterine cancer. Elizabeth was apparently as healthy as a horse.

I would recommend against syphyllus
(from Wikipeida)

From what I remember reading (in Guns Germs and Steel- I don’t have the quote handy) it was not unusual to have sores over a huger percentage of ones body.

Of course she could be one of the first few people to be infected with this “new disease”

Anyone need a good sig line :wink:

( sorryirishgirl )

Syphillis also has been known to cause mental instability/madness, so that might be helpful or unhelpful in the plot.

What about the good ol’ stand-by gonorrhea? It’s been around since Biblical times. It is easily transmitted by sexual intercourse and has clear (and unpleasant) symptomatology. While there is maternal-neonatal transmission (including death from sepsis), the baby has a sporting chance of being delivered without infection.

Gonnorrhoea is rarely symptomatic in women. Not the best bet. Plus, it causes infertility and PID (which the OP doesn’t want) and while in utero infection is rare, delivery through an infected cervix leads to neonatal conjunctivitis, which, in the days before antibiotics, would have almost certainly lead to the child being blinded.

Herpes would be better- obvious symptoms, not hugely debilitating, and unless the woman has an active infection during childbirth, unlikely to cause harm to the baby.

Bippy the Beardless- that was the sentence I came up with after rejecting the very Irish “if you want something with symptoms, Syphilis is your only man” as sounding far too much like a double entendre!

Another option would be condyloma accuminatum (venereal warts). They can be really, really ugly, but are fairly harmless (at least compared to most venereal diseases).

The story is that the girl has sex with this man once, and is infected and impregnated by this single encounter.

Would her infection be active in nine months?

Herpes can be transmitted even if the infected partner has no symptoms. It has an incubation period of something like 2-7 days and an outbreak will last about a week. The first outbreak is the worst, but someone can have lots of subsequent outbreaks, or only that once. A person is likely to have an outbreak of genital herpes when they’re stressed, ill or their immune system is compromised, you can safely assume than anyone who survived into adulthood in the 1500s had a damn strong immune system! They will, however, always be infectious, even if they are asymptomatic.
Viral warts are usually only infective when the partner is symptomatic and can be dormant for several months to years.

So, if you want her pregnant and infected with one encounter and to show symptoms immediately, but deliver a healthy baby, herpes would be the better option IMO.