Over on the CARM Lutheran board a bit of the "who's worse" game is being played. A Romanist has been posting for quite a while now on the alleged evils of Martin Luther. Someone responded by pointing out how awful some of the pre-Reformation popes were. One of the facts brought up was the following: "Julius II 1503-13: first pope to catch syphilis reported from a male prostitute." Indeed, Julius II was nicknamed "Il terrible" according to J.N.D. Kelly (The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p.256) . As awful as Julius II was, while searching around I couldn't find any solid evidence to support the charge "first pope to catch syphilis reported from a male prostitute."
This charge against Julius jumped out because a Lutheran quoted it and stated, "That is just plain nasty. Give me a 'neurotic' Luther anytime." True indeed, this Lutheran rightly assessed that the Romanist attacking Luther "cannot attack the message so he attacks the man and gets upset when it happens to him." While I don't endorse responding to myths with myths, it certainly does expose the Romanist argument for what it really is.
The irony that I don't think this Lutheran realized was that Martin Luther was also maligned as having syphilis. If you Google search "Martin Luther" syphilis you will not get a lot of helpful hits about this myth. One interesting hit though that makes it towards the top is a work of published fiction that states, "Among other famous syphilitics are Martin Luther, J.S. Bach, Voltaire, Thomas Aquinas, John Alden, Diogenes, and Pocahontas"[Source]. While some might think this writer was simply embellishing history for his fiction, the truth is that in the late 1800's the charge that Luther contracted syphilis was taken seriously by some scholars.
One of the most famous of these scholars was said to be the Roman Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle. In the book, Interpreting Luther’s Legacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969) the authors state Denifle held Luther was a "syphilitic man whose communion with God ceased entirely before his death, which may have been self-inflicted" (p.39). Only one volume of Denilfe's work on Luther is available in English, and that volume (to my knowledge) does not address Luther's syphilis. If Denifle did put forth this charge, I've yet to come across his specific comments on it.
Roman Catholic writer Patrick O'Hare's The Facts About Luther also mentions Luther's syphilis:
By his own admission [Luther] made no scruple of drinking deeply in order to drive away temptations and melancholy, and whilst his enemies may have gone too far in charging him with gross immorality, there is, however, much in this direction which cannot be ignored or excused. His ghastly utterances, his bubbling over with obscenity, his boiling spring of sensuality were known to all, and it could not be wondered at if men thought that these defects could only be explained and partially defended on the ground of an abnormal sexual condition which was supposed to have been heightened by licentious irregularities.O'Hare is simply parroting Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar. Grisar gives an extensive overview of Luther's alleged syphilis:
In the "Analecta Lutherana" by Theodore Kolde, there is a medical letter of Wolfgang Rychardus to Johann Magenbuch, Luther's physician, dated June II, 1523, taken from the Hamburg Town Library, which is of a character to make one wonder on reading it whether Luther did not at one period suffer from syphilis, at any rate in a mild form. On this delicate matter any one may, if further information be desired, read Grisar, Vol. II, pp. 162, 3, 4, where all the details of the question are carefully and learnedly discussed.
We cannot, however, avoid dealing here with a matter connected with [Luther's] pathology, which has frequently been discussed in recent times. The delicate question of his having suffered from syphilis was first broached by the Protestant physician, Friedrich Kuchenmeister, in 1881, and another Protestant, the theologian and historian Theodore Kolde, has brought it into more prominent notice by the production of a new document, which in 1904 was unfortunately submitted to noisy discussion by polemical writers and apologists in the public press.Conclusion
Kuchenmeister wrote: "As a student Luther was on the whole healthy. From syphilis, the scourge of the students and knights at that time (we have only to think of Ulrich von Hutten), he never suffered, 'I preserved,' he says, 'my chastity.' "
The inference is, however, not conclusive, since syphilis is now looked upon as an illness which can be contracted not merely by sexual intercourse, but also in other ways. There was therefore no real reason to introduce the question of chastity, which the physician here raises.
As regards, however, the question of infection, every unbiased historian will make full allowance for the state of that age.
Owing to the great corruption of morals which prevailed, syphilis, or the "French sickness, malum Francice," as it was called, raged everywhere, but especially in France and Italy. The danger of infection was, as Luther himself points out, extremely great, so that, as he says, even "boys in the cradle are plagued with this disease." So prevalent was this formerly unknown malady that "friends wished it to each other in jest." He sees in the spread of the "scabies gallica "a manifest Divine judgment for the growing lack of the fear of God, and looks upon it as a sign of the approaching end of the world. In his "Chronicle" he says that, in 1490, a new illness, the French sickness, made its appearance, "one of the great signs of the coming of the Last Day."
The new material furnished by Theodore Kolde in his "Analecta Lutherana" consists of a medical letter of Wolfgang Rychardus to Johann Magenbuch dated June 11, 1523, taken from the Hamburg Town Library, and is of a character to make one wonder whether Luther did not at one period suffer from syphilis, at any rate in a mild form.
The circumstances of the letter are as follows: Luther was recovering from a serious attack of illness which he himself believed to be due to a bath. We learn from Melanchthon that this indisposition was accompanied by high fever. On May 24, however, the patient was able to report that he was better, but that he "was over-burdened with distracting labours." At that time a certain Apriolus, a renegade Franciscan and zealous disciple of Luther's (his real name was Johann Eberlin), was staying with Luther at Wittenberg. He forwarded detailed accounts of Luther's illness to a physician with whom he was intimate, Wolfgang Rychardus, at Ulm. Rychardus was also a great admirer of the Wittenberg professor and at the same time, as it would appear, a devoted friend of Melanchthon's. In consequence of Apriolus's reports he wrote the medical letter now in question to another physician then studying at Wittenberg, Johann Magenbuch of Blaubeuren, who also was intimate with the Wittenberg Reformers, had helped Melanchthon in his Greek lexicon with regard to the medical side, and was then in attendance on Luther. It was Magenbuch who had first brought Rychardus into touch with Luther, and both had already exchanged letters concerning him. Rychardus remained Luther's friend at a later date.
Rychardus wrote to the physician attending Luther, that he had heard of the illness of the new "Elias " (Luther), but now rejoices to learn he is convalescent. It was evident that God was preserving him. In the meantime, out of pity [in a letter not extant], Apriolus had given him various particulars concerning Luther's illness and his sleeplessness. He points out that it was not sufficient that Luther should only enjoy some sleep every second night, though, of course, his mental exertion explained his sleeplessness, hence, as a careful physician, he recommends his friend Magenbuch to give the patient a certain sleeping-draught, which he also describes, and with which Magenbuch ("qui medicum agis") must already be acquainted. "But if,' he says, "the pains of the French sickness disturb his sleep" these must be alleviated by means of a certain plaster, the mysterious components of which, comprising wine, quicksilver ("vinum sublimatum"), and other ingredients he fully describes; this would induce sleep which was absolutely essential for the restoration of health. "For God's sake take good care of Luther," he concludes, and adds greetings to Apriolus his informant.
Divergent interpretations have naturally been placed upon this letter by Luther's friends and enemies. It might have sufficed to detail the circumstances and the contents of the letter, did not the somewhat violent objections raised against the view, that, owing to the information given him by Apriolus, Rychardus took Luther to be suffering from the French sickness, render some further remarks necessary.
It has been said that Luther was not ill at all at the time Rychardus wrote, but had recovered his health long before. It is true that in June, 1523, his life was no longer in danger, since Rychardus had heard from Giengerius, who came from the fair at Leipzig, that Elias had recovered ("convaluisse Helium"); but then his friend Apriolus forwarded the above disquieting accounts ("multa de valetudine adscripsit") which led Rychardus to write his letter, which in turn is an echo of his informant's letter. The circumstance that Luther was on the whole much better is therefore, as a matter of fact, of no importance. It has also been said that "Rychardus can be understood as speaking in general terms without any reference to Luther." According to this view of the matter the physician's meaning would amount to this: "Luther must be made to sleep by means of the remedy well known to you [and which he describes], but if along with it ('cum hoc') the pains of the French sickness should disturb anyone's sleep, they must be allayed by a plaster," etc. It is surely all too evident that such an explanation is untenable.
Again, the word "if" has been emphasised; Rychardus does not say that Luther has syphilis, but that if he has it. But, as a matter of fact, he does not write "if he be suffering from it," but, "if this malady disturbs his sleep"; taken in connection with the account of the illness, supplied by Apriolus, the most natural (we do not, however, say necessary)interpretation to be placed on his words is that he was aware the patient was suffering from this malady, perhaps only slightly, yet sufficiently to endanger his sleep. "But if, when use is made of the sleeping-draught indicated, syphilis should prevent his sleeping," is surely a proviso which no physician would make in the case of a patient in whom syphilitic symptoms were not actually present; Rychardus would never have spoken of the "new Elias" in this way unless he had reason to believe in the existence of the malady. It would have been far-fetched to introduce the subject of so disgusting a complaint, and much more natural to speak of other commoner causes which might disturb sleep.
It must, however, be allowed, that, both before and after this letter was written, no trace of such an illness occurs in any of the documents concerning Luther. The "molestice " twice mentioned previously, which by some have been taken to refer to this malady, have, as a matter of fact, an altogether different meaning, which is clear from the context.
One thing about Grisar, he doesn't mind excessive information or information overload. In another work Grisar was able to summarize the above on one page, concluding: "That Luther was a victim of this disease is not confirmed by any other source, whereas it is known, on the other hand, that this disease spread over Europe from France and Spain as a kind of pestilence at that time. It was also well known from experience that sexual intercourse was not the only means by which venereal diseases could be contracted."
Denilfe, O'Hare, and Grisar are all from roughly the same time period (late 1800's, early 1900's). While one may be tempted to think Grisar gave a fair assessment of Luther's alleged syphilis, some think otherwise. Most scholars tend to treat Grisar and Denifle together, as two scholars who basically arrived at the same conclusions, sharing the same bias. Richard Stauffer has succinctly said,
“Compared with Denifle's work, that of Grisar seems an improvement, if only by its tone; for is it not written with a chilliness preferable to the rabies of its predecessor? One might think so at first sight; but I follow Walter Kohler in regarding the brutality of the Dominican as better than the smoothness of the Jesuit. Where Denifle says straight out what he thinks to be the truth, Grisar makes subtle insinuations. One example from among many will illustrate this. It concerns the illness from which Luther suffered in 1523. In asking what was the cause of first the fever and then the insomnia, Grisar relies on a document which an historian cannot draw on in this case and so suggests that Luther could have had the malum Franciae, that is, syphilis. Grisar does not make positive statements; he is content to hint. But by this he shows clearly enough the malice of which the Roman Catholic historian Adolf Herte accused him thirty years later.” [Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 15]