English syphilis epidemic pre-dated European outbreaks by 150 years

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

Published: 24 July 2000

England was hit by a mystery epidemic of syphilis 150 years before the disease became widespread in Europe, according to new archaeological research.

England was hit by a mystery epidemic of syphilis 150 years before the disease became widespread in Europe, according to new archaeological research.

Radio-carbon dating tests carried out at Oxford University, together with tree-ring dating analyses undertaken by the University of Sheffield, suggest there was a severe syphilis epidemic in Hull as early as the 1340s.

Other English towns which appear to have been affected at about the same time include York, London and Gloucester, and possibly Norwich. Scotland and Ireland might also have been affected but there is virtually no evidence that any areas of continental Western Europe were affected.

Until now it was thought that Christopher Columbus's first return from the New World in 1493 was the conduit through which virulent syphilis entered Europe. But although Columbus's discovery of the West Indies and Central America was the cause of the epidemics which subsequently spread across Europe, a new analysis of evidence strongly suggests that an intermittent series of smaller earlier epidemics struck the British Isles - probably as a result of the medieval Norwegian Viking discovery of what is now eastern Canada. Archaeological evidence from dozens of locations inNorth America shows that syphilis was endemic in the New World.

Between AD1000 and 1400, the Norwegians were in contact with North America, mostly via Norwegian Icelanders and Greenlanders. And from around 1300 substantial numbers of Norwegian sailors and merchants began visiting King's Lynn and Hull. Direct contact between Scotland and Iceland also began at about the same time. The main European overseas destinations for Norwegian sailors and merchants in this period was England. And it is precisely at this time that evidence suggests the syphilis epidemic in England erupted.

The mid-14th century evidence from Hull consists of several skeletons showing bone deformation evidence of syphilis. Of 245 religious and lay skeletons buried in a monastery in the town centre, three have definite signs of the disease and more than 100 display degrees of deformation which could also have been caused by syphilis. The analysis of the skeletal material was carried out by the palaeopathologist Dr Charlotte Roberts, of Durham University.

Although, according to other recent discoveries, the disease certainly existed in Europe in ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably even earlier), the syphilis bacterium had achieved an equilibrium with its human hosts and seems to have become much less virulent over time.However, it almost certainly underwent minor mutations after some bacteria were carried by humans into the Americas in prehistory and were isolated from the Old World for several millennia. When transatlantic contact was made, these genetic changes could cause epidemiological havoc in Europe, which had no immunity to the mutated bacterium.

* A Channel 4 documentary, "The Syphilis Enigma", giving details about the Hull skeletons, will be screened tonight.

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