The Praise of the French Pox – Modernised

It is the complaint of an ancient writer, Nulla tam modesta fœlicitas est, que malignitatis dentes vitare possit:[1] there was never any felicity, whether moderately seasoned, or complete in perfection, so happy that could avoid the griping teeth of envy and backbiting. Out of which natural in-bred malice, men do not stick to defame and discredit the most noble and illustrious disease of the French pocks,[2] and to wrong those that be the worthy subjects in whom they reside: insomuch that the very mention of them is so noisome and offensive, and doth so much overcome their stomachs, as the naming of the things which are the purgings of the belly, and are within the ward[3] and bailiwick[4] of the girdle. Whereas the name of the pocks is of so reverend estimation, and soundeth so pleasingly in the ears of them that are not passionate, that even Diana herself whom the Paynims[5] adored for their goddess of chastity and honesty, took her name from them; whom the Latins call Bubones, the French Bubes, and the Spanish Buvas; so is she called Bubastis.[6] Yea, the famous star Bootes,[7] which guides Charles his wain,[8] admits these syllables into his name, and is called Bubulco. And why then should men here on Earth think scorn[9] of this name, which is well brooked by stars of the first magnitude, and goddesses of the fairest beauty? But because derivations do many times drive words out of fashion, and a notation of names is of all the artificial arguments in logic, one of the weakest, lest, by seeking to lift the pasty by one end, we mar[10] all; let us fasten upon something more material, and from the original of the word, come to the beginning of the thing.

Amongst those rich treasures, which Christopher Columbus brought home into Spain, after his discovery of the Indies, one of the chiefest was the pox; for in his fleet (amongst other fraught)[11] were wasted over certain Indian women, with whose happy conversation the Castilians came home plentifully furnished with this holy contagion: holy I call it, because the cure of it is that, which they call lignum sanctum,[12] or Guaiacum; holy, for the place, where it is healed, which is the hospital, called by the French, Maison-Dieu, and holy, because they are great helps to make them that have them Saints. For, whosoever shall behold the outward mortification of a pocky companion, the delicacy of the tone of his voice; his pale and meagre face, his wan[13] colour; and his whole body broken and disjointed, that a man may shake all his bones together in his skin; and lastly, shall see him wholly made a very picture and painted table of repentance; he may see sufficient tokens (at least wise) of apparent holiness: for you never see fat paunches, and plump cheeks, and idle fellows ever admitted into the school of repentance; nor into the stews,[14] the workhouse of courtesans; nor in the hospital and lazar-house[15] of the pock-rotten adventurers.

Among the three capital enemies[16] which with fire and sword do assail the soul, the greatest of them, which is the flesh, is wholly subdued by the pocks: because by them it is made unable to exercise any unlawful act. Is there anything in the world that doth more open the gates to holiness than to take away the occasions of sinning? And what is there that hath more efficacy to withdraw a man or a woman from occasions of evil than this holy leprosy?[17] For if a woman knows that a man hath the pox, she flies from him as a ragged sheep from a bramble-bush. Again, what greater token of holiness can there be in a man than to have a sense and feeling of his sins? Now who is he that doth suffer greater grief and pains for his sins than he that hath the pox? Who are more frank and more bountiful in gifts than such men? For a pock-master was never accounted a pilled[18] paltry fellow. For as when we see a blackamoor[19] cross the street, we say, speaking by the contrary: “There goes John Blanco”, or when we see a common woman, we likewise say: “There goes a good one”, so we call this holy infection, the peeling disease, understanding that such a one will part with his very skin.

All other aches and pains have some enemy that may destroy them; or by a bill out of the apothecary’s shop, like a writ of remove, they may be dislodged; but the pocks have made their peace with all drugs and confections, there is not found among all the phials and gallipots[20] any simple, or syrup so powerful that can disturb the pocks out of their possession: whence it is plain, that it is wrongfully and abusively called an infirmity, for the word infirmity argueth and importeth want of firmness; whereas the pocks are so far from not being firm, that to him that hath once caught them, they continue so firm, so stable and so well settled; that they never forsake him, but accompany him to his grave; and I think, into Purgatory too, because no lenitives, or purgations, can either assuage[21] their pain, or drive them out; surely so good a thing never goes to Hell.

They that set out the worth and greatness of that excellent poet Homer[22] ascribe it much to his honour that he drew his beginning from many cities and islands, as Smyrna, Rhodes, Colophon[23] and the like: how much greater is the honour of this spreading gangrene of the pox, which derives his descent not from islands and cities, but from great kingdoms and provinces. Some call it the Neapolitan disease; others the French evil; some the scab of Spain, others the Indian sarampion[24] or tetter,[25] and ring-worm. Others that speak with some reverence and respect to these Lady-mistresses, they fear to usurp their proper name; they do not say plainly to a man, “You are a Pocky-knave”, but rather “Vous avez, sir, ye are peppered”; and indeed such is the dignity and greatness of this mallender,[26] that they speak of it, after the style of kings and dukes and grandes, in the plural number. For whereas we commonly call blains[27] and sores in the singular number, the scurf, or the scab, or the Winchester goose,[28] these are all saluted in the plural number, the pocks, as if they should style themselves nos bubones, and pustule Gallicane.[29] And well doth this style agree unto them, because they deal royally and nobly with their attendants; for whereas in prince’s courts they that are suiters, do not see an end of their pretensions in many years, and when all comes to all, they seldom reap the fifth part of what they sued for: these nobles do soon dispatch all that negotiate with them, or plead at their bars, wonderfully well provided for.

Now let not any man object as an inconvenient that the pocks do peel all those that are of their fraternity and livery,[30] and make them as bald as an egg: for if we consider it, they do unto them no therein small benefit: for look what proportion the leaves bear to the tree, feathers to a bird, the same have the hair and the bush natural to a man, that is, they are given both for an ornament and a defence, for a covering and for comeliness.[31]

And seeing that Nature doth do trees a favour, in making them to shed their leaves, and fowls[32] to moulter[33] their feathers, that so she may dight[34] them and clothe them yearly with new; she doth not deal so with men, but leaves them to themselves, to effect it by their own industry and providence, whereunto when they are disposed to moulter and to do off their periwigs or perruques, the pox in this case is Nature’s agent, which doth maintain herself with that which is most delicate in that subject, such as are the thin locks of the head, the daintiness of the eye-lids and the eye-brows, the venerable beards and the most valiant moustaches: for never any timorous and white-livered[35] cowards have the pox, but the most fool-hardy adventurers are admitted into this corporation.

It is a rule infallible, that men are usually such as are those with whom they converse. And who are they (I pray you) that are most haunted with the pox but noble Lords, Cavaliers, and men of high parentage? The plough-swain[36] or day-labourer never knew that there was any such thing in the world as the pox; such is their miserable ignorance; nor yet the porters or car-men[37] are greatly troubled with this luggage in their own persons, neither do they ever descend so low as to chore-maids and tankard-bearers.[38] But you must seek for them amongst the lusty[39] gallants, and gay Ladies that ruffle it in silks, and outward bravery. And therefore may it please thee to be advertised, gentle Reader, whosoever thou be that[40] standest upon complement, that whensoever thou shalt salute such a Lady or Cavalier in the street, by vailing[41] thy bonnet, know, that by that obeisance thou dost homage to two grand and great personages at once, one to the party principal that is obvious to thy eye, the other to the pox which he carrieth about him.

How doth the world dote upon astrologers and star-gazers, that can foretell and divine[42] of things to come, whether they be the writers of the Greek Menologies[43] and calendars of the monthly variation of days, or prognostications of the changes of the moon, or days’ almanacks for the alteration of the weather? Whereas there is no astrologer more weather-wise than a pock-master, or whose predictions are more certain: for, if there be any change of weather or season approaching, presently the intrinsical accidents that cleave to his bones and sinews, do give him a perfect notice of it, in that he feeleth an ache in every commissure[44] of his joints, and his bones do even rattle in his skin.

Add hereunto, that men thus affected (or infected rather) have this great privilege above other men, that although they be in vassalage, and slaves by condition, yet are they observed and respected as absolute Lords; and are served of everybody, whereas they serve none but God, whom by the pox they are brought to remember. And see, I pray you, to what a lordliness they are advanced, in that not only their persons are in a manner sacred, and may not be approached, but at a certain distance; but whatsoever is about them, and belongs to their necessary use, cannot safely be touched of any man, as if they were some holy reliquies;[45] for no man dares to lie in their bed, or to wear their clothes, or to drink in their cup, or to sit in their chairs, men willingly withdrawing themselves from these things, as from vessels consecrated to this great idol of the Bubosity.

Howbeit, it is not greatly to be marvelled at that the pocks have attained to so high a pitch and prerogative of excellency, considering that the same act and operation, and the same instruments which Nature employeth to produce a man, which is the noblest of her creatures; the same are also the generative[46] causes of the pox; I mean, the great and honourable pox: for those other pushes and inflammations that arise in the body, of cold, or from an over-heated and exulcerated liver, are not properly pocks, but pouts and pimples. So then, this reason being considered, the pocks may very justly take state upon them, and stand upon puntillos of honour, and out-brave a man to his face and say, that they are issued from as good parents as he. And surely it seems no less; for as they that are nobly born, the better to show their greatness and to maintain their state, they live retiredly in the inmost and remotest rooms of their house: so do the pocks, out of the same rule and reason of State, keep residence in the very bones and the marrow of him that hath them; which is the reason also why for their birth and honourable rank, they find place and entertainment in Love’s Court, into which nothing is admitted, but what savoureth either of greatness or of goodness, as brave, resolute and determinate men; gallant and fair women; free discourse; wanton[47] witty poems, and plenty of great pocks. And lastly, what greater token can there be of a noble nature than to show thankfulness to those that have suffered anything for their sakes, or done ought to procure their good? In which kind of retribution the pocks are no way deficient. For whereas the nose in the purchase of the pox doth suffer a kind of lesion and hurt by the arrosion[48] of its gristle;[49] to make it ample amends and satisfaction; the pocks do make the nose the trumpet, or horn-pipe of their own praises; whose graceful tone varied chromatically upon the music and half-notes of snuffing and snorting, is much like the untamed voice and braying of Silenus[50] his hobby-horse.

Now if there be any man so ill an husband, that amongst other things of his own getting and acquisition hath not been so happy, as to become owner of the pocks; let him blame himself for an unthrift,[51] that hath misspent his time; and say, that he is without them, because they are not within him: or with the Spaniard, that he wants them, because he is not worthy of them:

Yo no las padezco,

Porque no las merezco.[52]

Carnestoliendas de Castilla. Noche tercera.[53]


[1] From Valerius Maximus’s De Dictis Factisque Memorabilibus (4.7).
[2] Syphilis. In both the 1616 and the 1617 edition we find it written either “pocks” or “pockes”.
[3] Here: the action of guarding, controlling.
[4] “A district or place under the jurisdiction of a bailie or bailiff. Used in English History as a general term including sheriffdom; and applied to foreign towns or districts under a vogt or bailli” (OED n., 1a).
[5] I.e. non-Christians, pagans. Here it refers to the Romans.
[6] “Latrator Anubis Sanctaque Bubastis, Ovid Meta. lib. 9.” [Cornwallis’s own note] Feline Goddess worshipped in the ancient Egyptian city of Bubastis. Also known as Bastet, she is identified by the Greeks with Artemis, the equivalent of the Roman Diana.
[7] Constellation in the northern sky known by the Greeks as Bootes and by the Romans as Bubulcus (Latin word for “herdsman”), here the term is used as an intended pun with the root bubo.
[8] Charles’s Wain: “The asterism comprising the seven bright stars in Ursa Major; known also as The Plough. As the name Arcturus was formerly sometimes applied loosely to the constellation Boötes and incorrectly to the Great Bear, the name Carlewayne-sterre occurs applied to the star Arcturus” (OED n.).
[9] I. e. to mock.
[10] To mar: “to mar all: to act so as to prevent a project or operation from reaching fruition; to spoil everything, to act badly” (OED v., 3.3c).
[11] “The cargo or lading of a ship”, now obsolete see “freight” (OED n., 1.2).
[12] Literally “holy wood”, a plant used mostly as a home remedy to cure several diseases, including syphilis.
[13] “Pallid, faded, sickly; unusually or unhealthily pale. Most frequently applied to the human face” (OED adj., 4.4a).
[14] I. e. brothels.
[15] “A house for lazars or diseased persons, esp. lepers; a leper-house, lazaretto” (OED n.).
[16] According to Christian theology, they are the world, the flesh and the Devil.
[17] “Originally (frequently with distinguishing word): disease causing scaliness, loss of pigmentation, or scabbiness of the skin; an instance or type of such disease; (now hist.)” (OED n., 1).
[18] “Figurative. Poor, meagre; miserable, wretched. Obsolete” (OED adj., 4.1b).
[19] A black African, also any dark-skinned person.
[20] “A small earthen glazed pot, esp. one used by apothecaries for ointments and medicines” (OED n., 1a).
[21] I. e. alleviate, relieve.
[22] The author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
[23] Smyrna and Colophon were two Ancient Greek cities on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, now Turkey, while Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece.
[24] Spanish word for “measles”.
[25] “A general term for any pustular herpetiform eruption of the skin, as eczema, herpes, impetigo, ringworm, etc.” (OED n., 1.1).
[26] “Originally: †a sore located behind a horse’s knee (obsolete). Later (in plural and †singular): a kind of chronic dermatitis of horses, characterized by the presence of such sores” (OED n.).
[27] “An inflammatory swelling or sore on the surface of the body, often accompanied by ulceration; a blister, botch, pustule; applied also to the eruptions in some pestilential diseases” (OED n., 1.1a).
[28] A venereal disease.
[29] Referring to France.
[30] “Something assumed or bestowed as a distinguishing feature; a characteristic garb or covering; a distinctive guise, marking, or outward appearance” (OED n., 1.5).
[31] I. e. decency.
[32] Any feathered animal.
[33] Moult: “To shed feathers in the process of changing plumage” (OED v., 2.2a).
[34] “To clothe, dress, array, deck, adorn (literal and figurative)” (OED v., 2.10a).
[35] Pusillanimous. From “liver”: “The bodily organ regarded as the seat of cowardice (usually characterized as light-coloured or white: i.e. supposedly lacking bile or ‘choler’)” (OED n., 1.4b).
[36] I. e. farm-labourer, countryman.
[37] “A man who drives a car (in various senses), esp. a carter, a carrier. Now rare.” (OED n., 2.1).
[38] Now obsolete, “one employed in drawing and carrying water from the public pumps and conduits” (OED n.).
[39] The collation was made from comparison with witness B162, as witness A is unreadable.
[40] The collation was made from comparison with witness B166, as witness A is unreadable.
[41] To vail: “To doff or take off (a bonnet, hat, crown, or other head-dress), esp. out of respect or as a sign of submission” (OED v., 4.2a).
[42] “To interpret, disclose, make known” (OED v., 3.1a).
[43] From the Greek “Menologion”, an almanac monthly organised.
[44] “Originally: a suture of the skull (now rare). In later use: a joint or junction between any two bones” (OED n., 1).
[45] I. e. relics, remains.
[46] “Generature” in both the 1616 and 1617 editions.
[47] “Of an action: lawless, violent; (also) rude, ill-mannered. Also: (of words) uncontrolled, rude. Obsolete” (OED adj., 1.1c).
[48] “The state or fact of being worn down or eaten away. Now chiefly in medical contexts” (OED n.).
[49] I. e. cartilage.
[50] “In Greek mythology, an aged woodland deity, one of the sileni, who was entrusted with the education of Dionysus. He is depicted either as dignified and musical, or as an old drunkard. In general use, a silenus denotes a woodland spirit, usually depicted in art as old and having ears like those of a horse, similar to the satyrs.” Knowles, Elizabeth (ed.) (2006), “Silenus”, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 2 ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, n. p.
[51] “A malpractice; a defect or fault in conduct.” (OED n., 1).
[52] Spanish for: “I don’t suffer (because of) them, because I don’t deserve them”. In Hidalgo’s original text we find “carezco” (to lack) instead of “padezco” (to suffer): Cornwallis might just have made a mistake or changed it on purpose, but it is also possible that the word was badly transcribed in the transmission of the text in manuscripts.
[53] It refers to the section “Noche tercera. Capitvlo II.” of Hidalgo’s Dialogos de apacible entretenimiento, Que contiene vnas Carnestolendas de Castilla containing “Que trata de las excelencias de las bubas”, of which the paradox is a translation.