Olivia Weisser

Furtive trysts. Regretful dalliances. Fleeting affairs. Sexual secrets were nothing new in the 1700s, but confessing them to a doctor became surprisingly common in published medical cases of venereal disease. In one instance, a woman consulted a surgeon for a common reproductive ailment known as “the whites.” She had taken spa water and astringents mixed with roasted rhubarb and opium, but continued to suffer from diarrhea and “gripings” in her bowels for years. After observing her symptoms and hearing her story, the surgeon pulled her husband aside and admonished him for infecting his wife. The man responded to this accusation “very heinously,” but eventually admitted to having contracted a clap years earlier. In this post, I offer some thoughts about what such confessions meant in the 1700s, and why so many cases of venereal disease from the period seem to end with them.

Hogarth's Harlot
A young prostitute dies of venereal disease, from A Harlot’s Progress (Wikipedia Commons)

First and foremost, confessions of sexual misdeeds demonstrated that patients trusted their healers with intimate secrets. The husband in the case above only shared his sexual history because he trusted the surgeon to keep his secret. Yet confessions also served a second important function: they validated healers’ expertise. Venereal disease — the term used in the period to describe a range of related disorders that we now consider separate disease categories — could be tricky to diagnose because it was incredibly stigmatizing. Venereal disorders were disfiguring and associated with illicit sexual contact. Some patients tried to avoid a diagnosis by misleading their healers. They lied about their conditions or refused to bare their bodies for inspection. In the face of such deceptions and denials, healers had to make diagnoses and prescribe treatments. Like detectives, they recognized the signs of venereal disorders and confirmed their suspicions by convincing patients — or the husbands of patients, as in the case above — to admit to sexual misbehavior. Confessions verified healers’ interpretations and enabled them to prescribe appropriate remedies. Confessions, in other words, validated healers’ diagnostic expertise.

One man rejected his doctor’s diagnosis of venereal disease, instead insisting that he suffered from a disease known as King’s Evil. He denied engaging in any kind of activity that might result in a venereal infection. His surgeon, John Marten, stood his ground. “I could not help,” Marten wrote, “for that he must be Cured as such or not at all; he gave me my Fee, made me a Bow, and away he went.” The gamble paid off. The patient returned the next day and admitted that he had slept with a woman eight weeks earlier. In another instance, a maid consulted a practitioner for a sore throat. After initially rejecting a diagnosis of venereal disease, she confessed to recently sharing her bed with an apprentice. While it was commonly believed that pleasure was required for conception, the young man assured her that “by reading some Physick Books” he knew how to avoid pregnancy without compromising satisfaction. She must have contracted an infection from him, although she claimed to remain a virgin. Her symptoms suggested otherwise. “She was both Poxt and Clapt together,” her healer wrote, “and without doubt no Virgin.”

The doctors who published these cases were concerned about demonstrating their expertise because many of them lacked the proper credentials to practice medicine. They were not learned practitioners. For the most part, they did not possess university degrees or medical licenses. Some of them seemingly toiled in the lowly ranks of medicine shaving beards and drawing teeth, before moving to London to peddle cures to an ever-growing population of venereal patients. By convincing patients to divulge their sexual pasts, these doctors displayed discretion, as well as diagnostic expertise. Confessions validated their ability to recognize venereal disease in spite of patients’ untrustworthy speech.

L0017159 The martyrdom of Merury. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The martyrdom of Merury. The scourge of Venus and Mercury, represented in a treatise of the venereal disease. John Sintelaer Published: 1709 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
John Sintelaer, The Scourge of Venus and Mercury (London: G. Harris, 1709). (Wellcome Images).

Confessions had a range of meanings in the early eighteenth century that further suggest why so many venereal cases end with one. In England, the days of confessing to priests were long past, but confession retained its associations with penance. Confession continued to be linked to divulgence of sin and expressions of remorse in more secular dimensions of life, too. Speeches made by people condemned to public execution typically included confessions. Historians have interpreted these last dying speeches as warnings and even last ditch attempts at redemption. The disclosure of sexual misconduct in venereal cases likewise provided warnings, exposed deceit, and offered an opportunity for repentance.

It is even possible that patients viewed confession itself as healthful. Scripture defined it, after all, as a nourishing act: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” Sermons and devotional literature from the period also suggested a link between confession and health by using medical terms to describe repentance. Moral transgressions were likened to disease, and purging the soul of impurities to a beneficial dose of medicine.

If patients were confessors, then practitioners were the priests who doled out penance in the form of medicines. There was a widely held belief that the punitive nature of harsh venereal cures was justified and even necessary. Undergoing painful treatment was viewed as an act of atonement: infected men and women suffered for their sinful ways by enduring the physical toll of mercury ointments, fumigations, and pills. The above image from John Sintelaer’s The Scourge of Venus and Mercury depicts men and women enduring these treatments, which caused excessive spitting, sweats, fevers, and trembling. By using the term “martyr,” Sintelaer likened mercurial remedies to redemptive torture.

Rose's Elixir
A Cure for the Pox? Rose’s Balsamick Elixir (1675). (British Library).

Advertisements for cures further suggested that poxed patients should ingest medicine to cleanse the body, as well as the soul. Rose’s Balsamick Elixir purportedly made “any Man tho’ as rotten as a Pear, to be as sound as a Sucking Lamb.” In another advertisement, a healer invited patients who had “slipp’d in between the Thighs of Venus” to sample his cures. “I will cleanse them from all Defilement and make them as white as Snow,” he wrote. These advertisements promised both to cure and to absolve sin.

Although patients and healers did not make explicit connections between the divulgence of sexual secrets and recovery from venereal disease, prevailing understandings of penance and health surely imbued such confessions with meaning. Sharing stories of sexual misbehavior provided relief in much the same way as a spiritual confession cleared sin from the soul or a medical remedy purged corruptions from the body. And such admissions performed important work for the healers recording venereal cases by demonstrating their discretion and validating their diagnoses. Patients’ confessions, after all, proved that cases were venereal and that illicit liaisons took place.

Olivia Weisser

Olivia Weisser is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her first book, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England, was published by Yale University Press in 2015. It explores health and healing in the 1600s and 1700s from the patient’s perspective. She is at work on a new project on the history of venereal disease. Follow her on Twitter @OliviaWeisser.

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One Comment

  1. Fascinating, Olivia. Your work provides a great window in which to view the attitudes and prejudices of that era.

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