English syphilis epidemic pre-dated European outbreaks by 150 years

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.

News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine