'Mischievous medieval monks spread syphilis'

London - The long-cherished British belief that it was the returning Spanish conquistadores who brought syphilis to Europe from the Americas, has been turned on its head by skeletal evidence that medieval English monks had the so-called "Spanish pox" long before Columbus set sail in 1492.

Research carried out on skeletons at an excavated priory in Hull unearthed evidence of the disease in many of the 14th-century monks, reported the Daily Telegraph on Monday.

This refutes the widespread assumption that syphilis had its origins in America, based on the belief that there had been no trace of the disease in Europe before 1492.

However, radio carbon dating of a male skeleton, possibly a friar, with obvious signs of syphilis has shown that the remains belong to the mid-1340s.

"This discovery changes our views about the history of syphilis," said Anthea Boylston, who led the six-year project at the University of Bradford.

"There had been a couple of skeletons around the country with signs of syphilis that could have pre-dated Columbus, but the interesting thing about this burial site is that there are cases of the disease in many individuals. That makes us think that syphilis was present in medieval England," she said.

The disease first attracted public attention soon after 1494, following a severe outbreak among French soldiers occupied in the siege of Naples. The "Great Pox" spread rapidly, afflicting victims with suppurating sores that ate away flesh and bone, followed by bone deformation, insanity and death.

In 1525, the chronicler Fernandez of Oviedo first raised the possibility that it had originated in America.

"American academics had always insisted that the disease came from there, but how could this be the case if a pre-Columbian man showed such obvious signs of it?

"The signs include pocking of the skull and a hole in the soft palate. They can be mistaken for leprosy but there is no doubt here," said Charlotte Roberts, an expert in palaeopathology.

Among the disease's more famous victims were Ivan the Terrible, Schubert, Nietzsche and Mussolini.

Although the disease is now controlled by penicillin, about 40 million new cases are notified annually around the world, according to the World Health Organisation. - Sapa-DPA

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