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

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 min­utes.

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.

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.”

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

Bryson Earth 1500 1

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.


Leave a comment

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments