Cover image for The wages of sin : sex and disease, past and present
The wages of sin : sex and disease, past and present
Allen, Peter L., 1957-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxiii, 202 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Notes: p. [163]-178.
Sex by prescription : lovesickness in the Middle Ages -- To live outside the camp : medieval leprosy -- The just rewards of unbridled lust : syphilis in early modern Europe -- A broom in the hands of the Almighty : bubonic plague -- The heinous sin of self-pollution : medicine, morals, and masturbation -- AIDS in the U.S.A.
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RA644.V4 A45 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
RA644.V4 A45 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Near the end of the century, a new and terrifying disease arrives suddenly from a distant continent. Infecting people through sex, it storms from country to country, defying all drugs and medical knowledge. The deadly disease provokes widespread fear and recrimination; medical authorities call the epidemic "the just rewards of unbridled lust"; a religious leader warns that "God has raised up new diseases against debauchery." The time was the 1490s; the place, Europe; the disease, syphilis; and the religious leader was none other than John Calvin.

Throughout history, Western society has often viewed sickness as a punishment for sin. It has failed to prevent and cure diseases--especially diseases tied to sex--that were seen as the retribution of a wrathful God. The Wages of Sin , the remarkable history of these diseases, shows how society's views of particular afflictions often heightened the suffering of the sick and substituted condemnation for care. Peter Allen moves from the medieval diseases of lovesickness and leprosy through syphilis and bubonic plague, described by one writer as "a broom in the hands of the Almighty, with which He sweepeth the most nasty and uncomely corners of the universe." More recently, medical and social responses to masturbation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and AIDS in the twentieth round out Allen's timely and erudite study of the intersection of private morality and public health. The Wages of Sin tells the fascinating story of how ancient views on sex and sin have shaped, and continue to shape, religious life, medical practice, and private habits.

Author Notes

Peter Lewis Allen , a writer living in New York, has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School or the University of Pennsylvania.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

What do lovesickness, leprosy, syphilis, bubonic plague, masturbation, and AIDS have in common? At some time in history, each has been declared by religious authorities to be an instrument of God's wrath, as Allen discloses in this disturbing chronicle of the conflict between medical and religious theories of illness, especially sexually related or venereal diseases, from the late classical era to the present. He particularly traces, through more than a thousand years of European history, the idea that illness is caused by its victims' sins, and illuminates the ongoing struggle between medical professionals, who sought to heal the sick, and religious authorities, who preached that the sick deserved their illnesses. Clearly written and condensing a great mass of historical research into a compact account of the evolution of medical theory as influenced by oppressive social mores, Allen's book is an important contribution to understanding the origins of cultural attitudes toward illness, especially those shaped by the Jewish and Christian heritages. --Bonnie Johnston

Publisher's Weekly Review

A gay man who spent the early years of the AIDS epidemic pursuing a graduate degree in comparative literatureÄand watching his ex-lover dieÄAllen has written an engaging contribution to the field of AIDS scholarship. The author (who, after teaching literature at Princeton and USC, is now getting an MBA in health care management at Wharton) traces the history of Western ideas concerning the links between what they saw as sin, sickness and death from the medieval era onward. In the Middle Ages, he observes, diseases such as leprosy, syphilis and bubonic plagueÄeach of which gets a chapterÄwere seen as God's punishment for sinners; physicians were torn between their duties as healers and their duties as Christians not to obstruct divine justice by aiding the sufferers. This conflict persisted but, according to Allen, took a strange turn after about 1700, when doctors began to believe that one particular sexual practiceÄmasturbationÄbrought down a righteous medical vengeance upon those who practiced it. Allen looks at how the remnants of these ideas about sex, disease, sin and death have shaped the more recent debates about illnessÄespecially AIDS. He details the public health conflict between those who want to halt the spread of the disease and those who want to see divine justice visited on homosexuals and drug users, praising folks such as the former Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop Alternately thoughtful, passionate and political, Allen has produced a stimulating work on a sensitive topic. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, Western religious traditions have linked sex to suffering. Allen (The Art of Love: Amatory Fiction from Ovid to the "Romance of the Rose"), uses techniques of literary criticism to trace this relationship from the medieval diagnoses of "lovesickness" (a type of depression) to the AIDS crisis of our own time. Allen also examines the cultural context of leprosy, syphilis, bubonic plague, and the 19th-century fixation on the evils of masturbation, exhaustively searching through medical and theological texts and illustrations to build a fascinating and sometimes shocking case. Allen's narrative, however, could have been greatly strengthened by attention to women's particular experiences of sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, and sexual assault. For example, bitter disputes surrounded the Victorian use of chloroform during labor, since many theologians viewed pain in childbirth as Eve's daughters' punishment for her original sin. In spite of Allen's omissions, his book provides an important perspective for academic and medical libraries.--Kathy Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Throughout the history of Western civilization, influential religious leaders and groups have often identified diseases such as leprosy, syphilis, bubonic plague, and AIDS as punishment for sin, the retribution of an angry God. This perspective has had a significant negative impact on how the public at large views individuals with these diseases and the kind of care received. Allen, author of books on love and sexuality, has graduate degrees in health care management and comparative literature, and he lectures at a number of major universities. He takes readers through a 2000-year odyssey, demonstrating that the history of the West is mired in conflict between religious and medical professionals concerning the cause of epidemics, particularly those with sexual connections. This disagreement continues to the present with the controversy about the moral and public health issues related to the AIDS epidemic. Allen presents an interesting and insightful historical panorama of the reality of providing care and treatment to those who have illnesses deemed by powerful religious forces to have been caused by the act of a vengeful God. This effectively organized and readable book is accessible to an interested lay readership, but some chapters have details more appropriate to a professional audience. Notes; valuable bibliography. General readers; undergraduate and graduate students; professionals. ; emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, Hershey Medical Center

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Chapter 1 Sex by Prescription: Lovesickness in the Middle Agesp. 1
Chapter 2 To Live outside the Camp: Medieval Leprosyp. 25
Chapter 3 The Just Rewards of Unbridled Lust: Syphilis in Early Modern Europep. 41
Chapter 4 A Broom in the Hands of the Almighty: Bubonic Plaguep. 61
Chapter 5 The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution: Medicine, Morals, and Masturbationp. 79
Chapter 6 AIDS in the U.S.A.p. 119
Conclusion: The Week Nobody Diedp. 157
Notesp. 163
Bibliographyp. 179
Indexp. 195