What role have venereal diseases played in the history of sexuality? 

Letter N

From the rise of syphilis in medieval Europe to the emergence of AIDS in the late twentieth century, venereal disease has played a significant role in the history of human sexuality. Responses to VD have ranged from the practical (such as specialist syphilis hospitals and anti-STD poster campaigns during World War Two) to the panicked (from early modern denunciations of syphilis as ‘the wages of sin’ to the HIV/ AIDS panic of the 1980s). The reputations of public figures from Henry VIII to Freddie Mercury have been shaped by their associations with sexually transmitted diseases, whilst VD has also been linked to national rivalries (syphilis, for example, was variously known as ‘the French disease’, ‘the Spanish itch’ and ‘the evil of Naples’). Venereal disease has also shaped lives at a more private level, producing intense emotional reactions and influencing personal medical histories and sexual behaviours.

Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality <notchesblog.com> is seeking short essays (1000 – 1500 words) exploring any aspect of the history of venereal disease, for a special series to be edited by NOTCHES editors Katherine Harvey and Agnes Arnold-Forster. Contributions may relate to any historical period or geographical area, but must have a strong historical focus.

Possible topics for exploration include (but are not limited to):

  • Medical explanations of, and responses to, venereal disease.
  • Religious explanations of, and responses to, venereal disease.
  • Strategies aimed at reducing the spread of VD, including institutionalisation and public health campaigns.
  • The relationship between sexual health and personal reputation/ national stereotypes.
  • Emotional responses to VD, for example fear, stigma and shame.
  • Case studies of individual experiences of/ responses to VD.

Style and image guidelines:

  • Submissions should be written for a non-specialist and international audience. Therefore, avoid jargon and use hyperlinks – not footnotes – to clarify terms or concepts that may be unfamiliar to a general readership.
  • Include at least one relevant image for which you have obtained permission and caption your image with clear attribution information. We welcome your use of a range of sources such as movies or sound files.
  • Include a short hyperlinked author bio and photo with your submission
  • For more information see www.notchesblog.com/write-for-notches

Essay submissions due by 15th January to k.harvey@bbk.ac.uk. Proposals and queries (to the same email address) are very welcome. All submissions to Notches will go through an internal peer review process prior to publication.

NOTCHES is an international, collaborative, open-access, peer-reviewed history of sexuality blog. With over 200,000 views, NOTCHES is at the centre of international conversations about teaching and researching the history of sexuality.


KHarveyPhotoKatherine Harvey is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, where her research focuses on the pre-Reformation English episcopate. Her first book, Episcopal Appointments in England, c. 1214- c. 1344, was published by Ashgate in January 2014, and she has also written several articles on the medieval episcopal body. Her current research project is ‘Medicine and the Bishop in England, c. 1100 – c. 1500.’ She tweets from @keharvey2013

Headshot of Agnes Arnold-Foster Agnes Arnold-Forster is a PhD Candidate at King’s  College London, researching the history of breast  cancer in nineteenth-century Britain and the US. She is  broadly interested in issues of gender, sexuality and  race, as well as NHS reform and global health. She  works for a small women’s health charity that  advocates for sexual & reproductive rights in sub- Saharan Africa. She tweets from @agnesjuliet.



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