The Syphilis Enigma

The Syphilis Enigma

2001, History  -   9 Comments
Ratings: 7.52/10 from 48 users.

The origins of syphilis have long been steeped in mystery and myth. Calling upon recent archeological discoveries, painstaking study, and observations from experts across a wide array of academic disciplines, The Syphilis Enigma attempts to untangle this complicated narrative and discern truth from fiction.

For years, it was believed that the initial spread of syphilis had stemmed from an act of vengeance. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, he brought with him a variety of infectious illnesses. In retaliation for this offense, Native American Indians sent their own venal brand of infection to European shores. When Columbus returned home the following year, he brought word of the New World, but he also carried with him a new disease. Subsequently, the first recorded outbreak of syphilis spread across Europe and devastated the region.

Thatќs one version of history. In 1994, archeologists began writing another. While embarking on a dig through the ruins of a medieval cemetery in Hull, they unearthed the remains of monks who bore the tell tale signs of syphilis, including pot marks on the skulls, holes in the palettes, and significant scarring and lesions on the leg bones. Carbon dating showed that these burials took place long before Columbus' epic journey.

How these celibate religious figures contracted a disease which is generally spread through sexual promiscuity was just part of the maze that researchers faced in the wake of this breakthrough discovery. The film portrays this incredible process through believably produced reenactments, real excavation footage, and interviews with various historians, archeologists and paleopathologists. How do they confirm their findings and to what extent will their conclusions require a complete rewrite of history? We learn much about ancient English customs and culture, the mutating characteristics of syphilis throughout the centuries, and the cause of its spread in certain regions of the country.

As our perception of history exists in a constant state of evolution, some of these conclusions will no doubt bring about even more questions for future generations. The Syphilis Enigma appreciates this ongoing dialogue with our past. The film works as both a captivating detective story and an absorbing history lesson.

Directed by: Amy Bucher, Christopher Salt

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9 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Doctor Lyme

    The new enigma is Lyme! Some patients are sure the disease is transferable by sexual contact or even by saliva contact. Medical scientists deny this and say: we need more research... but there is little or no research into the venereal character of Lyme. Too many people are infected with Lyme and the idea that Lyme disease could be even more contagious than HIV is a horrible scenario. So we whipe it under the carpet and say: we need more research and investigation. When will we know the truth about Lyme disease?

  2. Md Nealy

    Mark LaJoie, Leprosy or Hansen's disease is still among us and it is nothing like syphilis. Contrary to what ancient man thought Leprosy is not very contagious. However, the
    ancient leprosy camps undoubtedly had people in them that did not have Hansen's disease.

  3. winter

    Right you are. The truth is we will never really know, and it doesn't matter anyway.

    1. Woody

      Everything matters to people who think.

  4. Peter De Baets

    Interesting. I believe this also argues for pre-Columbian contact between the old and new worlds. The Chinese have reported cases of syphilis thousands of years ago. So maybe it spread to the Americas in ancient times, then back to Europe via Columbus' crew. Remember, there are Egyptian mummies that have traces of tobacco and cocaine which only come from the Americas. So if pre-Columbian traders could get those leaves to cross oceans, why couldn't they get syphilis do the same?

  5. thom prentice phd

    BUT WHEN? EVIDENCE FREE -- at least in the text -- so why should I watch? Monks contracted syphillis-- MONKS? -- and from whom and what might the epidemeiology be? Bait-and-switch? RE: "Carbon dating showed that these burials took place long before Columbus' epic journey.

    1. KARYN

      Because monks ran hospitals in the early centuries and were therefore exposed to bacterium from people suffering from syphilis - it is a “ skin to skin” contracted disease , also passed in utero - of course monks could get syphilis because like all bacterium, it constantly mutates to survive and monks were exposed during their treatment of the sick - doesn’t mean they were sexually active at all !

  6. Mark LaJoie

    I have always suspected that "leprosy" only became "syphilis" when it was realized that it was sexually transmitted.

    1. KARYN

      I really hate it when people are too bone idle to do the research to discover the bacterium that cause leprosy and the bacterium that cause syphilis are NOT the same at all .