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Did Shakespeare Have Syphilis?

14th February 2011

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Lancaster University History Society were lucky enough to be host to an hysterically funny and highly illuminating lecture by Lesley Smith, the curator of Tutbury Castle and 16th century historian.

Endlessly enthusiastic about her chosen subject, she prefers to take a hands-on approach to her studies. Students were regaled with stories about her experiments with Elizabethan condoms, her own experience using citrus fruit as a cervical cap and even her attempts to weave menstrual pads out of nettles. With her ever-present wit and boundless confidence she owned the room, and her bottomless bag of examples drew both horror and delight.

Attendees learned that women would cut lemons or limes in a certain way and insert them into the cervix before sex, which was surprisingly effective! Smith consulted with a gynaecologist on the matter and convinced him to perform the procedure on herself, to the horror of listening students. ‘The hard part was getting it out again,’ she said with a grin, relishing our shock.  However, it was clear to us that she was a serious and highly intelligent researcher. Her methods may seem extravagant, but in this way she provides fellow historians with much-needed information and experimental data.

Students were informed that metal chastity belts were a myth, a holdover from the Victorian S&M scene, and the only version ever known to be available was a streamlined leather model, strictly for monks who found their earthly desires to be rather hard to suppress.

Smith acknowledged that there may even be proof that Shakespeare suffered from syphilis. Syphilis first emerged in the late 15th century, leading to the creation of the first European condoms, or ‘pistol-pockets’. (You know how Shakespeare plays are considered part of high art, imparting wisdom and class on every student that studies them? Count the references to pistols, and think again.) Shakespeare was possibly a recipient of mercury baths and even a mercury enema, methods that were thought to cure syphilis at the time.

But however sensational and ridiculous all these methods seem, Smith emphasised that the Elizabethans were as real as us, ordinary people that lived and loved and died and that should always be respected. ‘Have you ever read Henry’s letters to Anne Boleyn?’ she said. ‘He really, really loved her, whatever else he did.’ With her experiments and her boisterous attitude to complement her research, Lesley Smith is not only a good historian, but an excellent one, and it was a privilege to hear such an unusual and enthusiastic take on such an iconic time period.

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