Small-Pox and Immorality in the Middle Ages

We had been planning to continue our series on sexuality and morality in the Middle Ages by pointing out the conduct of kings and popes of that time. The point that we were making in this series was that, though our age certainly has its moral failings, people of the modern age are more concerned with issues of right and wrong and personal conduct than in medieval times.

This is true even of our political leaders. If you doubt that even, say, U.S. presidents conduct themselves with more propriety than past leaders, you should really study the lives of those at the apex of medieval society. In fact, the details of the lives of France’s Francis I (1515-1547) or the Borgia popes are so sordid and disgusting that we decided that they were not fit for a family-oriented site such as the Positive Press. No modern political or religious leader would dare conduct themselves in the manner of, say, Pope Alexander VI. All the gritty details are available in William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Perhaps one reason why moral laxity prevailed in historical times is the fact that life, and health, was so uncertain. In previous Historical Perspectives we have discussed, in general terms, the prevalence of disease and the very short lifespans of pre-modern society. However, we recently came across some interesting comments by brilliant 19th-century writers regarding a particular disease. That disease is small-pox. How often have you awakened in the middle of the night with the fear of disfigurement or death from small-pox? I would hazard to guess never. But things were very different in times past.

In his work of historical fiction, “The History of Henry Esmond,” William Thackeray describes the effect of small-pox in the 17th century:

“I remember in my time hundreds of the young and beautiful who have been carried to the grave, or have only risen from their pillows frightfully scarred and disfigured by this malady. Many a sweet face hath left its roses on the bed on which this dreadful and withering blight has laid them. In my early days this pestilence would enter a village and destroy half its inhabitants; at its approach it may well be imagined not only the beautiful but the strongest were alarmed, and those fled who could.”

The heroine of Charles Dickens’ epic novel “Bleak House” is also disfigured by small-pox. These writers, although writing novels, were very much writing about the reality of past times, and in particular the powerlessness of people who were struck by waves of disease. Only in our century has this fundamentally changed, to the point that small-pox and many other diseases are no longer factors in our lives.

And isn’t it a great thing that we no longer have to worry that a disease such as small-pox will come to our town and strike us, or our neighbors, or family?

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