Historians rely on periodization, the practice of defining certain eras as distinct from others. Like rivers that help form geographic boundaries, historians use great events to demarcate ages. The dawn of early modernity is marked by a litany of developments in the vicinity of 1500 said to terminate the middle ages: Gutenberg’s press, Columbus’ journey, Luther’s shattering of Christian unity, Copernicus’ transposition of earth and sun. After these events, we are told, the middle ages were no more. Although it is not invoked with the same gravity as these legends of textbooks, yet another event changed European life at the close of the fifteenth century: the 1494 emergence of a lethal disease that will eventually be called syphilis. For the history of sexuality it helps ring in a new age. The disease spawned one of history’s longest recorded debates, running into this its sixth

century. Did it return with Columbus or was it a new strain of an existing disease? Nowadays syphilis’ origin falls to paleopathologists studying pre-and post-Columbian bones on opposite sides of the Atlantic. But for all the power of techniques like carbon dating, the jury is still out.1 The tide of opinion has long supported the view characterized by Alfred Crosby’s phrase ‘the Columbian Exchange’, which sees Europeans and Americans trading smallpox for syphilis.2 In these histories white sailors’ bodies shuttle microbes across the ocean introducing them to ill-prepared populations with bad consequences for Europe and genocidal ones for America.3 With recent awareness of environmentalism and globalization, meta-narratives on the global history of disease, in which the Columbian exchange plays a central role, have been powerful.4 However, recent analysis of pre-Columbian English skeletons with possible signs of syphilitic damage ensures that the debate continues.5