cushycms Greater Story - Excerpts from A Greater Pox
a greater pox

“There was a year when the peaceful co-existence of  
Moslems, Jews, and Christians in the Kingdom of Spain came to a  bloody halt. That same year the world's greatest military power launched a daring invasion on foreign soil - - - ”

A Greater Pox

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There was a year when the peaceful co-existence of Moslems, Jews, and Christians in the Kingdom of Spain came to a bloody halt. That same year the world's greatest military power launched a daring invasion on foreign soil, and an AIDS-like disease from beyond the ocean erupted and spread biological terror across the globe.

But also in that year, love bloomed, and grew to an epic adventure for a naïve girl who ultimately found herself caught up in the Beauty and the hope for Man's future which was the Renaissance.

Before AIDS, there was another world-traveling epidemic. Before Bill Gates' internet, there was Gutenberg's revolutionary printing press. Before the current scandal in the Catholic Church, there was an infamous Pope of insatiable appetites.

But the human heart hasn't changed much over the centuries: there has always been Romance, always military invasions, always the lust for adventure, always those who would care for the people who couldn't afford physicians.

This is the true history of Syphilis. How it gained its European foothold with Columbus’ returning sailors, then grew into an epidemic among the knights and footsoldiers of the French Army. The true story of how the Army of King Charles (the Big Head) conquered Italy in 1494, discovered the Renaissance along the way, and catapulted a new disease from beyond the ocean into an epidemic that lasted for 500 years. The lessons of the Renaissance are still with us. So is the disease.

We experience all this through the adventures of Pilár, a girl whose love for a young soldier propels her (and us) into the heart of historical events.

Amid the chaos of romance, war, and epidemic, Pilár shows us, by living the adventure, how Reason began to challenge Faith, how the Renaissance obsession with Beauty transformed medieval Europe, and how the terrifying epidemic of a New World disease revolutionized Western Medicine.



Excerpt from A GREATER POX©

abridged paperback 2003
unabridged hardcover 2005
read on Public Radio 2006


Chapter 1

Spring, 1493

A Barbary Coast wind, warm with early african summer, washed across the sea into an ancient harbor. It swung a dozen foreign ships by their anchor chains. It wound up the seaport’s narrow alleyways accumulating odors, and swept back the brown and tangled hair of a barefoot girl.

She ran on the sand between old Roman walls on her left and a meandering stream to her right. She ran through the shadows cast by oak trees on the sand, past scavenging dogs that jumped from her flapping skirt, past poor women washing their clothes. She ran until the sea came into sight, then she turned, splashed across the stream, and darted down an alley.

“Martín!” She yelled between gasping breaths. “He’s coming! He’s coming, Martín!”

She gained speed on the downsloping alley, toward a seated figure below. She tried to yell once more, but could only gasp. Momentum took over. She collided into the massive and gelatinous back of the seated man, just as he was pouring a stream of red wine into his mouth. His body lurched forward, driving the table edge deep into his abdomen and the glass spout of his porrone halfway down his throat. Bread, cheese and fish flew from the table. He choked on the wine, gargled it back up, and swallowed. Then he turned to see what clumsy pickpocket had assaulted him so early in the day.

His eyes widened with recognition. “Pilár!” He swept his hand toward the food on the street. “My lunch!” He held up the porrone. “My wine. I was nearly impaled through the throat. What were you thinking?”

She clung to his loose cotton shirt with both fists, jumping up and down by his side. “He’s coming!” she wheezed between gasps. “The man who . . . who sailed to the Indies . . . is coming! With gold . . . and treasures . . . and all his Men of Glory! To see the King and Queen. Here!”

Her jumping slowed, eventually stopped, but she maintained her grip so she could lean on him, heaving, to recover her breathing. Her smile flooded his blank and fattened face.


“Yes, Martín?”

“Get me more cheese and bread.”

She lurched into the Inn through the door adjacent to Martín’s table; the same door through which he’d dragged the table out into this warmest day since last September. When she came out again to place a hunk of goat cheese and a fist of bread before him, she was more subdued. He resumed eating. She stood by the table fingering her blue cotton skirt.

“Señor Martín . . .” she ventured.

“Sit down,” he muffled with full mouth, not looking up at her. She quickly dropped into a chair across from him.

“I was climbing up Montjuic to watch the ships from the top of the mountain and some pilgrims said that the Discoverer is coming with all his Men of Glory and everyone is going to see him and…”

He cut off her renewed enthusiasm with a raised hand.

“The screaming I heard, which I thought was the Old Fish yelling at her husband again, was you, no, little girl?” He looked up at her.

“Yes,” she bubbled. “Yes. It was I. So that you can be the first in Barrio Chino to know. Martín! We must go watch the parade to the Royal Palace!”

“If this Great Man and his gold are at all civilized,” Martín droned, “he will wait beyond the city walls until we’ve had our siesta.” His eyes glanced up to see her reaction to his tease, expecting a small eruption.

“Oh, he’ll wait longer than that.”

“He will?”

“He’s still ten leagues from here on the Coast Road. He’ll be here in two more days. We must watch him when he enters the town, Martín.” She leaned toward him as far as the table would allow. “Never in our lives have we seen an adventurer more famous! You must close the Inn so we can go.”

“I’d like to see this,” the Innkeeper mumbled as if to himself. He looked at Pilár: “We will close the Inn and go, and pray to the Virgin that all the wealthy customers who might come at that time are delayed until we get back.”

She jumped from her chair and enclosed his flabby chins in her arms. “Thank you, Don Martín! The Virgin will delay all our customers and they’ll be even more hungry when we open again. I know it is so. I’ll clean your table now,” she scurried. “Do you want more wine? What should I wear, do you think?”

She stopped at a thought, pulled back the chair, and floated into it like a stray feather. “Martín?” Her eyes and smile were not at the table but halfway out to sea again, as he had often seen them. “Would Men of Glory such as they ever consider allowing a girl to accompany them on their adventures, do you think?”

“Yes, Pilár . . .” he began. She snapped back instantly, beaming. “. . . I would like more wine.”

“Oh. Wine.” Her smile shrank but didn’t disappear. “Yes, more wine.” She took the empty porrone into the Inn, and soon returned with it full of heavy red wine.

“Sit, Pilár.”

He tilted his head back, and aimed a stream from the spout of the glass carafe onto his wine-stained tongue. When his mouth was full, he tipped the porrone quickly, caught the entire stream, and brought his head forward as he swallowed.

“Of course sailors would take a pretty young girl with them. And you’d pass your entire adventure running from their grabbing hands. Imagine how you’d waste away with no time allowed you, even for meals. You wouldn’t be safe. Your honor would be constantly assaulted. And you don’t know yet how to defend yourself. Of course,” he mused, “you’ll learn. You’re not yet seventeen –” a doubt interrupted his thoughts. “Are you?”

She wagged her finger, in response.

“No. I thought not. Anyway. Adventure is for men.”

“I’ll have adventures, Martín. I just know it. Only I don’t know the way they’ll come to me.”

“You’ll be married someday and have the adventure of being a mother. That’s the adventure which awaits all women.” His smile was warm and encouraging.

“Yes, Martín, I will be a mother and have many children –”

“Twelve,” Martín confirmed the oft-quoted number.

“Twelve,” she agreed. “But before that, I want to do other great things. “The French girl, Joan? The one you told me about? She became a soldier. The Moorish princess, Scheherazade traveled the whole world. I’ll pray to the Black Virgin to show me the way to adventure.”

The wine and the considerable task of digestion caused Martín to abandon the discussion. “Pray to whomever you wish, my girl, you’ll be rewarded or punished as God sees fit. Now is the hour of siesta. Close your ears so I may belch.”

She pushed fingers into her ears. His stomach released an eruption of mixed gases, and, thus deflated a little, he pushed the table out of his gut and waddled off down the road to his home and bed.

* * * *

Two days later Pilár stumbled into the Inn carrying a large fish in her arms.

“Martín,” she called excitedly, as she ran through the main room on her way to the kitchen. “The whole city is going to the Southwest gate to see him arrive. We have to hurry!”

She plopped the heavy fish onto the wooden kitchen table, out of the dog’s reach. She wiped the slime from her hands on her apron, then returned to the main room through the arched portal. Martín and his friend the fishmonger sat at the largest of the three tables, drinking and talking.

“Good day, Uncle Xiquet,” she bowed. “How is your health?”

Her feet shifted impatiently while waiting for the older man to respond. She brushed fish scales from the bodice of her apron.

“Good day, Señorita Pilár,” he nodded. “I am well, thank you.” Then he turned to Martín. “This girl is like a flower, Martín. She is opening up a little more each day, to be a beautiful woman. Some caballero will be very lucky.”

She blushed and smiled. The narrow-faced fishmonger squawked out four laughs in a fractured tenor.

“Sometimes you remind me of a sea gull when you laugh, Uncle Xiquet,” she blurted.

“A seagull!” he pondered. “And you used to remind me of a gangly crayfish, trying to run on sand,” he smiled. “But now? You’re growing up too fast, Pilár.”

She stood up straight before him. “My legs are longer, Uncle. I think I can even outrun you now.”

“Oh, do you?”

“Come with us to see the Adventurer from the Indies, Uncle. I’ll race you to the Southwest gate!”

“All that way? You’ll never make it, Pilár. Halfway there I’d be required to pick up you up and run the rest of the way, carrying you in my arms. Like my daily delivery of fish to the barracks out there.” He raised his voice: “Crayfish, anyone? Crayfish with tender legs!” He squawked again.

“And you could do it, too,” added Martín. “Not for nothing do they call you the strongest man on the seafront.”

Pilár re-created his description by holding her arms out in front of her, as if carrying something. Her face was thoughtful. “Then I’d be in front of you, and be the first one there. So I’d win, wouldn’t I?” She grinned into his face.

“Watch this girl, Martín,” laughed the sinewy fishmonger. “She has a wit as well as good looks. She could be dangerous.” He grabbed the porrone, turned to wink at Pilár, then poured a stream of dark red wine into his throat.

“So, Martín,” he continued after swallowing, “are you going to see this Genoese who now fancies himself Spanish nobility?”

Martín pushed himself up from the table.

“Yes. Pilár wants to see a real adventurer and has decided, it seems, that Martín does not meet the qualifications.”

“Oh no, Señor Martín,” she began in protest, “I only --”

His smile stopped her.

“The Saints know that my Inn has seen many adventures,” he said, arms leaning on the greasy table, his pendulous belly dangling. “Only last month two Frenchmen were knifed to death at this very table.” He grabbed the knife which hung securely by a chain from the table, and stabbed it deep into the greasy wood for emphasis. “But . . .” he drew a deep sigh, “these aren’t adventures enough for such a worldwise girl.”

Pilár had removed her blood and slime-smeared apron. She rolled it over and over in her impatient hands.

“Come with us, Xiquet,” Martín said to his friend. “It promises to be a great parade.”

“You two go, and tell me all about it later. There’s work to be done and money to be made.” He rose from the table.

“You work too much, Xiquet,” said Martín. “Come along and enjoy yourself.”

The fishmonger shook his head. “I have fish waiting at my store, begging to be sold before they rot. I must oblige them. And as for you, young woman,” -- his dark eyes were suddenly stern -- “you may no longer call me ‘Uncle Xiquet.’ It’s not proper.”


“You must call me --” he rose slowly from the table and placed his fists on his waist -- “‘Uncle Seagull.’” He squawked a laugh, turned, and careened out of the Inn, swooping from side to side, flapping his arms like wings.

Adios, Uncle Seagull,” she yelled toward the door. Then she whirled and started toward the room where she lived.

“I’ll wear my red dress and you, Martín, should put on --”

“No, no, no, Pilár, my child. You’re not working. And the nobles don’t wish those who receive them to be as splendid as they. Wear something dull and plain. And wear some shoes. It’s a long walk.”

Within five blocks of the Inn the two of them were becoming part of a growing crowd which streamed toward the gate. Pilár saw several old women dressed in the traditional mourning black, but most others were dressed gaily. She was impressed that the men wore clean shirts beneath their colorful cotton jerkins. And even more impressed that they all wore shoes, mostly of cloth with long pointed toes, but some of leather. Not since Easter had she seen so many cotton hats with tassels that swung in rhythm with their owner’s cheerful steps.

“Don Martín!” bubbled Pilár as she tugged on his sleeve, “Listen to how their dresses swish as they walk!”

She never thought to remind him of his comment on her red dress, which now lay idle at the Inn.

Within another five blocks they had entered a district of the city where rich merchants lived. Pilár and Martín had to stop abruptly to avoid a collision with a man who pushed across the flow of people. He wore a red cloth hat, and his hair was freshly cut in an even length to his collar. He had a pointed goatee on a chin which he bore so high that it preceded every other part of him but his smell: a rank odor of garlic-stained sweat partially smothered by imported perfume. His eyes never touched the people he pushed out of his way. From his neck and shoulders fell a green brocaded cape, with a flower pattern of yellow nearing the intensity of gold. His tight fitting hose were red and he wore black slippers tied on his feet with silk ribbons.

“Martín!” exhaled the girl. Her hands grasped and dug into the fat man’s arm. What a beautiful man!” She looked up into her mentor’s face. He shrugged.

“Dutch cambric. He’s probably an importer, wearing his cloth to impress people and wasting a week’s profit.”

“Martín,” beamed Pilár. “You must know everything.”

At the intersection of two streets the crowd stopped to allow a band to advance to the southwest gate. It was military music, which picked up her heartbeat and accelerated her pulse. The blare of trumpets between staccato drumming caused the little hairs on her neck to prickle. With the falling off to her left of the sounds of drum and trumpet, the rhythmic, haughty clacking of horses’ hooves reached her right ear.

A flash of sun blinded her eyes for a second. When she blinked them open, she gasped at the polished steel breastplate of a soldier who pranced above a horse. Every hoofstep jangled with a hundred livery bells. As he rose and fell rhythmically before the crowd, sun glanced also from his steel helmet and from steel plates on his sleeves. What wasn’t steel on this apparition was leather. His face was as powerful as a forest brute’s, as handsome as a prince’s. His arrogant eyes shot fire when they pierced the crowd.

Pilár suddenly became aware that she wasn’t breathing, and exhaled, then sucked in deeply. “Martín, who was that?”

“Just a soldier, Pilár. Like these others.”

And more horses and armored men rode past with a clatter and jingle and the flashing of sun from the steel they wore. Some bore lances, one carried a cross, all exuded the self-assured and proud faces of men who control the world with only their instincts.

p> The crowd fell in behind the soldiers.

“There are too many people, Martín,” Pilár said as they walked toward the gate. “Tall people. I won’t be able to see anything.”

“I thought we came to see people,” he joked.

“People, yes. But not these people.” Her arms swept the crowd. “The Discoverer and his Men of Glory. What will we do, Martín?”

Her eyes were distorted by impending disappointment. Martín looked around at the accumulating mass of people, then used his bulk to push across the road. He clutched her hand and pulled her to the base of a large oak at the road’s edge.

“We’ll wait here,” he said. “Most of the crowd will be at the gate, but his retinue will pass by here on its way to the palace. Surely the soldiers will remove everyone from the road before the Discoverer’s path. We will be in the very front.”

She looked wistfully toward the gate, but saw his logic and settled in at the base of the oak. For another hour she enjoyed the flow of the city’s citizens that passed in front of her.

Then, as Martín had prophesied, the soldiers rode against the flow and told people to move to the side of the road. Two columns of people began to form from the migrating crowd. The smells of bodies untouched by water for weeks, and of clothing both moldy and sweat-soaked, coalesced and intensified as people crowded beside the road.

A woman, richly dressed and perfumed, moved in front of Pilár. The girl marveled at the woman’s hair, braided and interwoven with colored silk threads enwrapping each braid. The perfumed hair seemed almost to vibrate in the sun and Pilár felt a little envious. Then the woman reached up to scratch under her hair and Pilár noticed the swarming of hundreds of lice. The girl backed away, then timidly said, “Excuse me, Señora, I can’t see.”

The woman turned, smiled warmly, asked the poor girl in her simple dress to pardon her, and stepped to the side to give back to Pilár the place by the road.

Against most who tried to push Martín and Pilár back, Martín succeeded with bulky intimidation. But one man, dressed richly and laden with gold necklaces and jeweled rings, swept at Martín and Pilár with his hands as if shooing away dogs, and brought under the oak shade to displace them, his entire household: wife, children, several servants and a fat dog with the whitest fur Pilár had ever seen.

“Good day, Señor,” boomed Martín in his deepest voice. “Perhaps you didn’t notice that we were here before you. We will share this space, however. But please allow us to remain nearest the road.”

The man looked up and down at the globe-shaped Innkeeper, recoiled a little as if surprised by the source of this talk, and sniffed through his nose as if to smell Martín. He then curled his lip in disdain and turned to face the road, directly in front of Martín.

“In the name of Christian charity, Señor,” said Martín to the back of his head, “move aside.”

The man’s purple hat turned as he directed one word over his right shoulder: “Why?”

“Because I feel the need to vomit,” belched Martín.

The man recoiled from the presumed trajectory as Martín lunged forward, great gasping mouth first, and took one step closer to the road, putting the arrogant man behind him.

“Ah, nothing that time,” said Martín, grinning broadly at the man. “But you’d better stand behind me, for the safety of your clothes.”

The man attempted disdain again, but the cowardice on his face couldn’t be completely overcome, and he shrank back behind Martín whose stomach, obviously, could not have been built with wholesome food alone.

“Come here, Pilár,” he signaled to her, “Stand near me.”

“Are you sick, Martín?”

“Oh yes,” he winked to her. “You know that I sometimes eat at Inns in the seaport district.”

A loud cheer arose from near the gate and the crowd around the oak quieted immediately. Two mounted soldiers twisted their sweating horses on the road before them, clearing it of people. Foam flew from the horses’ mouths and sweat dripped from their jangling bells. The cheer became continuous and grew louder as it slowly flowed toward Pilár. When the soldiers were elsewhere for a moment, Pilár leaned far forward into the road and looked toward the gate. Where the two lines of people alongside the road converged in the distance, she saw a glistening black creature carrying on its back an object which radiated, like the sun, with a yellow light. She squeezed her eyes to better see the form.

Suddenly she was jerked back violently. Seconds later a mounted soldier galloped by where she’d been, and disappeared toward the gate.

“He almost trampled you. What did you see?” Martín tried to control his excitement.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled. “I don’t know.”

The cheer rolled toward them, like growing thunder, accompanying the black animal and whatever else was advancing. Pilár stood rigid, feeling her heart thrashing, tingling everywhere. When the two mounted soldiers passed, rigid in the saddle, she leaned forward to see.

A black horse, sheening with sweat, prancing slowly down the center of the road. On it was a rider, white-haired, dressed in black like a noble. He wore a white silk blouse, lace collar, puffed trunks of black silk above his knees, black hose and boots. From his breastplate, the sun slashed into the crowd with dozens of shafts of yellow light.

“Martín,” she breathed, “it’s gold. His armor is gold!”

As he passed, the rider smiled slightly and nodded to the crowd. His manner was subdued as befit nobility, but joy radiated from his face as clearly as the sun from his armor. The crowd clapped its hands for him.

But Pilár noted that the loudest cheering had not yet arrived. It was for something or someone yet to come.

After the Discoverer, came four mounted attendants, one in red, another purple, a third blue, and the fourth in green. Behind them were six large gold discs, carried by men so alien that they could never have been dreamed. Their skin was a bronze color, their faces distorted by wide noses, thick lips and high cheeks. They wore clothing made of feathers: green, blue, purple and red feathers -- the color of Columbus’ attendants. The discs they held in their hands, flashing in the Mediterranean sun, were faces of gold with jeweled earrings and carved holes for bestial pagan eyes.

The cheering washed over Pilár from the right as the Indians passed before her, and she erupted into ecstatic screaming to join it. She yelled as wooden cages were next carried by, containing birds so colorful, it was as if they’d been made from the rainbow. They fluttered and crashed against the walls of the cages, driven by the cheering. They squawked a noise like no other bird she’d ever known.

The rainbowed birds, the strange men who wore feathers, the horrible beauty of the heathens’ gold icons stirred within her emotions that poured out Pilár’s open mouth. Her imagination streaked to the land from which the Indians had come and found a great marble palace where people dressed in feathers and were served by Moorish princes. Beyond was a vast plain over which flew a flock of rainbow birds that extended to all horizons. The sun’s light flowed through their billions of translucent feathers washing the entire plain in an iridescent rainbow. In the distance was a mountain of solid gold, hundreds of meters high, where rock was encountered only as small pebbles embedded in the gold, where rubies grew . . .

“Pilár!” She was being shaken.

“Girl! Stop screaming. Your tongue will disintegrate.”

She saw Martín’s familiar bulbous red nose and fat jowls, then felt a raw discomfort deep in her throat. The crowd was clacking excitedly as it crushed onto the road to follow the marvels.

“Martín,” she croaked with her injured voice, “we must go to the palace.”

“Yes, your Highness.” He curtsied ridiculously with his thumbs and forefingers pinching the edges of his shirt as if it were a dress. “The King of Aragon awaits you, drooling, no doubt, like a horny sailor.”

“Martín, be quiet! They’ll arrest you,” she whispered loudly in fractured syllables. She pulled him toward an open space in the crowd.

“I don’t think they’d let me in, Martín . . .”

“You don’t?” His sarcasm was jovial. “Good. It had appeared you’d lost your senses.”

“I want to watch the Discoverer’s arrival there. And maybe the Queen will come out. They say she’s beautiful.”

Martín led her through the crowd toward the other side of the road.

“The Queen will not come out. She considers her husband’s subjects to be poor barbarians. And . . .”

“We are not poor barbarians,” she played, thrusting her nose into the air like the merchant who’d pushed across their path earlier.

“Not at all,” haughtied the fat man whose nose copied her lead. “Why, at this very moment we have four coronados in our pockets.”

“And the means,” she said running in front of him where she turned, faced him, and pulled her dress tightly against her body, “to make more.” She pushed out her breasts by arching her back, and smiled broadly.

They both laughed, turned onto a street which sloped gently toward the seaport district, and walked home. Pilár bubbling over with what she’d seen, Martín listening and nodding.



Notes by the Chapter

Chapter 1

The Place: Barcelona was founded as a seaport originally by the ancient Phoenicians or Carthaginians. Because of its important location, it was fought over and changed hands often. At the time of this story, it was a major international trading center and seaport for Catalonia and the kingdom of Aragon. Most trade was with southern France and Italy.

Montjuic is a 192 meter high rocky outcrop overlooking the seaport. At the time of the story, it was topped by a lighthouse. Barrio Chino (the Chinese quarter) is an old and now infamous district near the waterfront.

The Barbary Coast, wellspring of pirates and legends, comprises, geographically, the Mediterranean coastline of north Africa from Morocco to Tripoli.

Knowledge: The Dark Ages lingered in Spain, isolated from central Europe where the printing press, an invention only forty years old, was wresting literacy from the Church. Feudalism and the Church continued to be the two forces which molded life in Spain. Monks, of course, were literate, and were still the slow source of new books. Only the rich could afford medieval hand-crafted books – Durant relates of a Bible sold for ten talents (equivalent of $10,000) and a missal exchanged for a vineyard.

Most commoners and many knights, though they were aristocrats, dealt with language exclusively in its verbal form. The Church had long avoided teaching non-clerics to read (and interpret) scripture for themselves. It should not be surprising that people filled this huge void in their lives (which one doubts they even recognized as a void) with myth, folk tales, and magic. Nor should it be surprising that the beliefs of Christianity intertwined with the belief in myths and magic as illiterate people struggled to comprehend.

Hygiene: Daily bathing in Europe (except for Italy) was largely a lost practice at the end of the fifteenth century. The baths built by the occupying Romans centuries before were in disrepair, and Christianity’s influence placed moral barriers to disrobing, even for that purpose. Moreover, folk beliefs on the origin of disease further discouraged bathing. Singer, a medical historian, described such belief as it was applied to Plague: “(the disease) is held to be the effect of miasmas or corrupt vapors upon the humoral complexion of the patient, the pestilence entering as an evil emanation through the pores of the skin… To combat this, bathing was interdicted, lest the pores of the skin be opened…”

The result was not only dirty skin, but skin with open sores where people had scratched and torn with their fingernails. The billions of bacteria swarming on unwashed skin could quickly overwhelm even a normal immune response and turn a scratch into an infected sore.

Sexual activity at the time was not constrained by the negative overtones we have inherited since from Anglo-Saxon social movements. Perhaps in the world of medieval Europe where escape from starvation required grueling hard work, where disease snatched infants almost as fast as they were born, where people collapsed of old age in their mid forties, and where the Church’s teaching to those who suffered was that they should endure it in the hope of happiness after death, sex was a pleasant escape available to all, even the poor.

Although the Christian Church taught sexual restraint, there is much evidence that the leaders of the Church seldom practiced it and, at the time of this story, Puritanism had not yet surfaced. In fact, the Protestant Reformation was in its early stages at the time, fueled in part by disgust at the licentious behavior of Church leaders, but was isolated far to the north of Europe where the Pope’s armies seldom reached.

So the stage was more than adequately set for a sexually transmitted disease – which resulted in open skin sores and could, in addition to the usual sexual routes, also be transmitted by sore-to-skin contact – to play out its natural history.

The Players: Ferdinand, king of Aragon (which included Catalonia with Barcelona as its capital) married Isabella, queen of Castile in 1469. The marriage united the two great kingdoms which would become modern Spain. By pure chance, both monarchs were intelligent and liked each other, so infighting didn’t destroy the fledgling state. Another stage was set: the one upon which Spain’s “Century of Gold” would be constructed.

Three major events in the history of not just Spain, but the world, occurred in Ferdinand and Isabella’s united kingdom in 1492. The first of these events is symbolized by the return, in glory, of Columbus to the monarchs’ capital at the time, Barcelona.

Vocabulary: “porrone” - a glass carafe for wine, constructed with a spout so that wine can be poured directly into your mouth, bypassing the cup.

“coronado” – a small denomination coin; less than a penny.

“jerkin” – a close fitting overcoat, usually made of leather, often without sleeves.

“Black Virgin” – The Virgin of Montserrat. See Chapter 7.

“caballero” – literally “horseman”, it has evolved to mean more; perhaps “gentleman” is a more accurate reflection of its meaning.

“league” – the distance measured by a league varied among different countries and different times. About three miles.

“adios” – a contraction. “Dios” means “God”, so “adios” is probably a shortened version of the Spanish parting salute “go with God”. To North Americans, this is one of several Spanish words which have become incorporated into the vernacular including also “calaboose”, “vamoose”, and “hombre”.


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