get your yaw-yaws out! (syphilis, mad monks, and sailors)

SAY YOU WANT a brief but cogent explanation of the contemporary interpretation of the Big Bang Theory—where do you go? And—notice I didn’t say “or”—you want to know why Yellowstone National Park is both one of the most beautiful preserves in the world and one of the most potentially catastrophic areas in the world—where do you go? Plus you need some background on where syphilis and yaw-yaw and mad monks.

This essay originally appeared on this site as a two-part article in a different form in 2014.

Where do you go?

On top of that, you also want a list of science’s most innovative thinkers—which includes some of its most eccentric personalities—and you want it all in one place where it can be read at a leisurely pace. 

Where do you go?

You go to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2003) gives an outsider’s history of science and its many fields. The book is a series of brief explanations that includes the meaning of many of their more perplexing discoveries—perplexing to those of us who are reasonably intelligent or educated but not science-oriented. And it can be leisurely read and easily understood.


First US hardcover edition by Broadway Books, 2003 (544 pages).

Get the lead out

For example, Chapter 10 is “Getting the Lead Out” and deals with the element lead and its many uses in 20th century technology. It covers topics as diverse as the introduction of tetraethyl lead in the 1920s as an additive to gasoline to eliminate the ‘knocking’ in automobile engines and the history of modern radiocarbon-dating techniques.

Lead became a ubiquitous element in the American environment, as the automobile reached levels of mass production never dreamed of by Henry Ford. Its presence posed a long-lasting threat to the health of everyone in America, a threat only recently alleviated with the phasing out of leaded gasoline that began in the 1970s.

Radiocarbon-dating was developed in the 1940s and allowed scientists “to get an accurate reading of the age of bones and other organic remains. . . . It was based on the realization that all living things have within them an isotope of carbon called carbon-14, which begins to decay at a measurable rate the instant they die.” The decay could be measured and the age of almost anything could be assessed with an accuracy previously unknown.


First UK hardcover edition by Doubleday Books, 2003 (515 pages).

Syphilis and yaws and mad monks

Bryson does discuss radiocarbon dating’s flaws and certain basic assumptions that lead to inaccuracies. He calls attention to some of the “seemingly unrelated external factors” that can throw a reading, including the specimen’s diet. As an example of the techniques strengths and its weaknesses, the author cites an example concerning a mysterious epidemic in Old England:

“One recent case involved the long-running debate over whether syphilis originated in the New World or the Old. Archaeologists in Hull, in the north of England, found that monks in a monastery graveyard had suffered from syphilis, but the initial conclusion that the monks had done so before Columbus’s voyage was cast into doubt by the realization that they had eaten a lot of fish, which could make their bones appear to be older that in fact they were. The monks may well have had syphilis, but how it got to them and when remain tantalizingly unresolved.” 1

Notice, please, the relaxed manner in which Mr. Bryson bypasses the implications of the monks’ situation—that is, how did the brothers contract and spread a deadly venereal disease?—by stating that it is an issue that remains “unresolved.”

The monks of ancient Hull may well have had syphilis, but how it got to them and when remain tantalizingly unresolved.

But say it ain’t so, Bill! Surely any monastery full of Catholic monks swore several oaths, including one of celibacy. This example would seem to indicate that the problems with randy clergy that has plagued the Catholic Church during the past few decades has a long historical precedent. 2

Of course, if you geographically isolate a few hundred men and deprive them of contact with females, the results are predictable. (What would you expect to happen?)

It should be noted that the virulent strain of syphilis that plagued them apparently also affected the citizens of Hull, so we cannot rule out the possibility that at least some of the monks may have been lying (laying?) with local lasses.

Mad Monks: First Turkish edition of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING.

First Turkish hardcover edition by Boyner Yayınları, 2003 (528 pages).

Monks and celibacy

As for those monks’ vows, celibacy ain’t what you might think it is: according to Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words – A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right (Broadway Books, 2002), “Celibacy does not, as is generally supposed, indicate abstinence from sexual relations. It means only to be unmarried, particularly as the result of a religious vow. A married man cannot be celibate, but he can be chaste.”

While the primary definition of chaste is “morally pure in thought or conduct; decent and modest” (Free Dictionary), it is the secondary definitions that come to most readers’ minds when they see that word:

a) Not having experienced sexual intercourse; virginal.
b) Abstaining from unlawful sexual intercourse.
c) Abstaining from all sexual intercourse; celibate.

There we have it: the monks of Meaux were celibate but not chaste!

Mad Monks: illustrated US edition of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING.

Special US illustrated hardcover edition by Broadway Books, 2005 (624 pages).

Get your yaw-yaws out!

Syphilis was first reported in Europe in 1495, wending its way through the armies of Charles VIII of France as they retreated from their attempted conquering of Italy. Once these strange symptoms were identified as a new disease, the French naturally blamed the Italians and dubbed it the ‘Italian disease.’

In an early example of what sociologists now refer to as the ‘blame game,’ the Italians reciprocated, dubbing it the ‘French disease’—which is the better known of the two nicknames.

The timing of this initial outbreak led many historians to conjecture that Columbus brought it back from the New World among his sailors. This has long been an accepted explanation, although there has long been contradictory evidence, such as the bones of those Augustine monks at the friary at Kingston-upon-Hull.

“We concluded that the closest relative of the modern syphilis strains of bacteria or some progenitor came from the New World.”

An article titled “Columbus did bring syphilis from America” (The Telegraph, January 15, 2008) discussed a recent study by geneticist Kristin Harper of Emory University. Ms. Harper’s paper provides us with the most detailed, comprehensive comparative analysis yet conducted on the Treponema pallidum spirochete bacterium.

These wee beasties are responsible for several horrible diseases, notably the venereal syphilis (once known as the “pox”), and the non-venereal skin and bone disease yaws. According to Harper:

“We concluded that the closest relative of the modern syphilis strains of bacteria were strains collected in South America that cause the Treponemal disease yaws. That supports the hypothesis that syphilis or some progenitor came from the New World.”

There are critics of this theory who argue that the genetic differences between the yaws of the New World and the syphilis of the Old World are bigger than they would have expected. These critics believe that the sampling was too small and that more are needed for a conclusion the be be made. According to Highfield:

“[Harper’s] analysis of 26 pathogenic Treponema strains indicated that yaws is an ancient infection in humans while venereal syphilis arose relatively recently. A subspecies of the yaws bacterium from the warm, moist climate of the tropical New World mutated into the venereal subspecies that was able to survive in the cooler and relatively more bygienic European environment.” 3

Harper’s conclusion is that “the big problem with the Hull site is the dating, so none of the individuals studied can be reliably dated to before 1495. Until the Hull researchers can demonstrate that their dating is solid, I think their claim to syphilitic fame is suspect.”

Mad Monks: illustrated UK edition of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING.

Special UK illustrated hardcover edition by Doubleday Books, 2005 (624 pages).

An old disease from a new world

A more recent article titled “Skeletons and Syphilis” by science writer Chris Lydgate, (Reed Magazine, March 2012) also addresses Harper’s work:

“Medieval doctors are unanimous in stating that syphilis was a new malady. There is evidence that some of Columbus’s crewmen showed symptoms on the journey home. In addition, after the voyage, some crewmen are believed to have sailed to Naples, which is where Charles VIII and his army most likely acquired the pox.

After setting up rigorous criteria for diagnosing syphilis and establishing the date of the [monks’] bones, Kristin and her colleagues reviewed 54 published reports and could not find a single Old World skeleton that was both clearly pre-Columbian and clearly syphilitic.

But once Kristin adjusted the radiocarbon dates for the fish in their diet, it looks like the monks may have been buried much later than originally thought, perhaps as late as 1611—plenty of time to have caught syphilis from Columbus.

By contrast, Kristin’s team found several skeletons matching these criteria from the New World, where there is overwhelming evidence of syphilis in multiple populations going back thousands of years.”

Mad Monks: illustrated German edition of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING.

Special German illustrated hardcover edition by Doubleday Books, 2006 (606 pages).

Columbian and pre-Columbian hypotheses

The editors at Wikipedia state the situation succinctly: “The exact origin of syphilis is disputed. Syphilis was indisputably present in the Americas before European contact. The dispute is over whether or not syphilis was also present elsewhere in the world at that time.” They note the two primary hypotheses:

• The Columbian hypothesis that syphilis was carried to Europe by Columbus’s sailors.

• The pre-Columbian hypothesis that syphilis existed in Europe previously, but went unrecognized until after Columbus’s return.

And so it is that the evidence tilts rather obviously in favor of the belief that the discoverer of the New World returned home with a disease that would prove to be the scourge of Europe in the future. 4

Finally, what are we to make of those English monks?

Chris Lydgate opined that they were “pox-ridden sinners, to be sure.”

Mad Monks: photo of the Earth in partial eclipse.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page of the partially obscured home planet was cropped from the cover of the Bryson book.




1   Found on page 154. Alas, Bryson does not give a date, but I assumed it to be the mid 14th century “epidemic” associated with that locale.

2   The monks were not involved in any form of pedophilia, but I would have to assume that they certainly enjoyed each other’s company.

3   Bygienic means “tending to promote or preserve health.”

4   The Wiki editors conclude that, “The Columbian hypothesis is best supported by the available evidence.” But that could change.

Mad Monks: Portuguese paperback edition of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING.

This Portuguese paperback edition by Bertrand Editora from 2009 is by the far the most colorful printing of this book that I found.

Columbus returned from the New World with a disease that would be the scourge of the Old. Click To Tweet



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