Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Norway

Susann Holmberg defended her thesis, Contracting Knowledge: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Norway, at the University of Oslo on October 2 2020. The thesis is a contribution to the field of early modern knowledge history and was supervised by Erling Sandmo and Morten Fink-Jensen.

This thesis explores the knowledge of venereal disease in eighteenth-century Norway. This is a largely unexplored topic, even though the disease had a significant impact both on society at large and on the development of medicine. The wide concept of knowledge incorporates the many actors on the medical marketplace, ranging from patients to community healers to university-trained physicians.

Some knowledge of venereal disease pervaded Norwegian society at all levels. The disease’s progress and eventual manifestation in ways that were impossible to hide outed the sufferer in society. The physical symptoms of venereal disease sparked discussions within communities not only about possible treatments, but about the shameful nature of the disease and the behaviour which was perceived to have caused it. Recipes for and advice on treatment circulated among sufferers as well as within the wider community, and people sought help from actors in the medical marketplace when their own knowledge failed. These diverse actors often had quite different approaches to medicine, informed by their different worldviews. I have categorised them in ‘knowledge groups’ according to their medical approach: empirics and licenced practitioners. However, the overlap between the treatments they provided was significant.

People’s choices of practitioners were due in part to practical concerns, in part to the assignment of authority to medical knowledge. Although we now commonly refer to physicians as ‘authorities in medicine’, this attribution of authority was not self-evident in early modern Norway. The respective actors’ authority was partly determined by the degree of overlap between their own and their recipients’ worldviews. Therefore, an actors’ ability to function as a medical authority was greatly determined by their worldview and thus their approach to medical treatment, rather than their possession of a certain level of knowledge as such. The authority of knowledge was not necessarily something that could be bestowed, but is shaped and given by those who are subjected to it.

Image: Skulls infected with venereal disease: two figures. Line engraving by C. Grignion, ca. 1788. Credit: Wellcome Collection

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