A fifth of all London residents suffered from syphilis in the 18th century. Given this level of infection, sex was a risky endeavor, albeit ubiquitous. Because the city was considered “spoiled” and obviously rightly so. The special role of the capital is also noticeable. The “den of sin” London achieved an infection rate 25 times higher than rural areas at the time. This is what a study by historians Professor Simon Szreter from the University of Cambridge and Professor Kevin Siena from Trent University in Canada says, published in the journal “Economic History Review”.

The study was able to calculate infection rates in men and women under 35 years of age. The researchers are confident that their one-fifth estimate is conservative and only represents a minimum value. In addition, far more people suffer from gonorrhea or chlamydia than from syphilis, according to the study. Ultimately, the vast majority of capital city residents suffered from a sexually transmitted disease at the time.

This can’t really come as a surprise; James Boswell, famous for his biography of Samuel Johnson, mentions his venereal diseases in connection with escapades in London brothels in 19 episodes in his no less famous diary. Boswell helped “change our understanding of the population structure, sexual habits and broader culture of the capital, which became the largest metropolis in the world,” the researchers said.

Boswell, happily married, pursued women constantly and although he used a condom – the “armor” – he fell ill 19 times. For a famous and wealthy man like him, quick sex was always possible, as he writes. “At the foot of the Haymarket I picked up a strong, cheerful young girl, took her under the arm and led her to Westminster Bridge, and then in full armor I set her on that noble edifice. The whim to do it there while the “The sight of the Thames rolling beneath us really amused me.”

But he not only had adventures with young girls, but also with women of his class, such as the actress Anne Lewis. He also contracted the “plague of Venus” from this turbulent relationship, which he described in detail.

A German visitor commented in shock at the time. “There is usually a crowd of female creatures standing in front of the theaters, including children as young as nine or ten. This is the best proof of the moral depravity in London.”

“Our results suggest that Boswell’s London fully deserves its historical reputation,” said Szreter. The philanderer Boswell was no exception. “The city had an astonishingly high rate of venereal disease at this time. It no longer seems unreasonable to assume that the majority of people who lived in London contracted a venereal disease at some point.”

“It’s not very surprising that sexual culture in London at this time was different from that of rural Britain. But it’s now quite clear that London was in a very different league than even larger provincial cities like Chester,” says Szreter.

The real driving force behind the diseases was misery and prostitution. The researchers assume that a large proportion of the young people who flocked to the city at that time took up prostitution in order not to starve. Venereal diseases were particularly widespread among young, impoverished, mostly unmarried women. Either they were prostitutes or they lived in conditions where they were often subjected to sexual assault. Young, poor and immigrant men also found themselves in the same situation. And then there was the risk group, to which James Boswell also belonged: established gentlemen who could afford the sexual services of the poor.

At the first signs of the disease, such as a rash or painful urination, most people hoped they only had “gonorrhea” (gonorrhoea) and not “smallpox” (syphilis), the researchers said. Gonorrhea was treated with various pills and potions. Syphilis could only be combated with a tincture based on mercury. A regimen that hoped the poison would kill the disease before the patient died from the drug. She required at least five weeks of hospitalization. This was offered free of charge by hospitals in London. At that time, they placed 20 to 30 percent of their patients in “unclean” syphilis wards.

Quelle:  Economic History Review

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