The Praise of the French Pox
The Praise of the French pox is the first of the two paradoxes translated from other texts included in the collection (the second one is The Praise of Nothing, from Jean Passerat’s Latin poem Nihil): specifically, it is an adaptation of “[Discurso] Que trata de las excelencias de las bubas” by Gaspar Lucas Hidalgo. Diálogos de apacible entretenimiento, in which the chapter is contained, was firstly published between 1603 and 1604 and widely circulated when, in 1605, the essayist followed his father, Sir Charles Cornwallis, to Spain where he had been appointed resident ambassador (Whitt 1932, 163). As Bennett underlines, there are no prior evidences of his knowledge of Spanish (1931, 221), therefore during his several journeys delivering private communications between the Embassy and the Secretaries of State in London (Whitt 1932, 163) Cornwallis must have become enough acquainted with the language to produce a rough translation of Hidalgo’s text. It is important to notice, however, that the reference is made more explicit at the end of the paradox with both the Spanish quote drawn directly from the original text, although “carezco” substituted with “padezco” (l. 143), and the final line “Carnestoliendas de Castilla. Noche tercera.” (l. 145), indicating the circumstances in which the dialogue originally took place (as reported on the full title of the book, although Hidalgo writes Carnestolendas de Castilla).
In this paradox the author wants to defend what he considers “the most noble and illustrious disease” (l. 4): the French Pox, what the syphilis was initially called. The disease was thought to have been brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus’s crew but the first outbreak was recorded in Naples during the French invasion of 1495; this is why, as it is also pointed out in the text, it was originally given different names: the French Pox, the Neapolitan Disease, the Scab of Spain – this classification reflects the desire to blame it on other Countries, since it was strongly associated with sexual promiscuity and prostitution. The term “syphilis”, as it is known nowadays, comes from the 1530 literary work of Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician and scholar, titled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Syphilis, or the French Disease), in which the protagonist, a boy named Syphilus, is punished with the disease by the god Apollo after insulting him.
It is from the origin of the name that the author begins his argumentation: while the sole mention of it is offensive for people eager to judge those who have the pox, the same root of the Latin “bubones”, the French “bubes”, the Spanish “buvas” (other ways in which it was called) is also contained in estimated names like the Goddess Bubastis (Diana) or the star Bubulco. Brought by Columbus into Spain from the Indies, this “holy contagion” (l. 22) makes people who have it Saints: the flesh, most affected by it, bears visible signs and makes the body unable to commit sins. After stressing that its many places of origin, great kingdoms and provinces, only contribute to its greatness and that, contrary to all other diseases, the term used to refer to it was, “after the style of kings and dukes and grandes” (l. 64), plural (the word in the original text is in fact either “pocks” or “pockes”), the paradox continues with a series of advantages for those who bear it. The first inconvenience mentioned is that the infection affects all the hair on the body, causing it to come off and leaving people bald: in reality, the pox acts as Nature’s agent, helping them change their covering like trees with leaves and birds with feathers. Furthermore, one must not forget the noble and brave nature of the pox, as only Lords, Cavaliers and noble Ladies are haunted with it, or the ability of any man infected to predict the changing of the weather much better than astrologer and stargazers, so reverenced and adored, simply with the aching in his bones and junctures. Lastly, it is pointed out that even if in lower social conditions, men with the pox are treated like Lords and served by everybody, and not only is their person considered sacred, but also their belongings are almost relics as no one dares to touch them. It is then very straightforwardly concluded that if a man has not been honoured with the pox it is simply because he is not worthy of them.
Bennett, R. E. (1931), “Four Paradoxes by Sir William Cornwallis, the Younger”, Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 13, 219-40.
Hidalgo, Gaspard Lucas (1610), Diálogos de apacible entretenimiento, Brussels: Roger Velpius.
Whitt, P. B. (1932), “New Light on Sir William Cornwallis, the Essayist”, The Review of English Studies 30 (8), 155-169.