The Language of Disease
Writing Syphilis in Nineteenth-Century France

Steven Wilson

Research Monographs in French Studies 62


28 September 2020  •  158pp

ISBN: 978-1-781885-60-4 (hardback)  •  RRP £75, $99, €90

ISBN: 978-1-781885-64-2 (paperback, 18 January 2023)  •  RRP £10.99, $14.99, €13.49

ISBN: 978-1-781885-68-0 (JSTOR ebook)

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While the ‘venereal peril’ of nineteenth-century France was responsible for thousands of deaths, much attention has focused on the range of social anxieties with which it was associated, including degeneracy, depopulation, state surveillance and public morality. In this interdisciplinary study, Steven Wilson redirects attention onto the body as locus of syphilis. Combining a critical medical humanities approach with close readings of medical and literary texts, Wilson explores the ways in which canonical and non-canonical writers of the time found a language to represent the diseased body. Drawing on scholarship from gender studies, theology, pain studies and word/image relations, this engaging study investigates what the language used in nineteenth-century French literature tells us not only about the pathological function and lived experience of syphilis, but about the role played by literature in representing disease.

Steven Wilson is Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Queen’s University Belfast.


  • ‘One of the book’s strongest points is its effort to highlight critical traditions that are rarely brought into the conversation. Wilson regularly offers helpful summaries and clarifications on the different critical currents discussed.’ — Alexandre Wenger, Metascience 23 October 2021 (full text online)
  • ‘Wilson’s study contributes significantly to an emerging area of research acknowledging the centrality of syphilis to broader social, medical, and hygienic anxieties, while employing methodologies from the critical medical humanities to focus specifically on the diseased body and its relationship to the language of disease... As we are constantly reminded of the importance of quarantine, contagion, and transmission, Wilson’s approach to the body and language raises questions for future study on how the diseased or sick body shapes and generates language, and how this language shapes our understanding of the body.’ — Beatrice Fagan, Modern Language Review 117.1, January 2022, 127-28 (full text online)
  • ‘Steven Wilson’s The Language of Disease makes a significant contribution to ongoing efforts to de-anglicize the medical humanities... While Wilson’s book is, by his own admission, but 'one study of [the language of] one disease in one country at one particular time,' there is no doubt that the approach it adopts will be of considerable value to future explorations of the linguistic dimension of disease.’ — Jordan Owen McCullough, Literature and Medicine 39.1, Spring 2021, 180-84 (full text online)
  • ‘Wilson constructs a compelling argument in favour of the medical humanities considering both the critical value of expanding its preoccupation with contemporary medicine, and the importance of taking a more global approach... Wilson’s book is brimming with information, fresh critical perspectives, and compelling close readings that ensure that it will become an important reference for scholars of nineteenth-century French studies in search of this most elusive of diseases.’ — Sarah Jones, Irish Journal of French Studies 21, 2021, 150-51
  • ‘Steven Wilson’s book is guided by a question which is at once both extraordinarily timely and yet timeless: how does the diseased body shape language and what, in turn, are the effects of language in shaping our understanding of the diseased body? ... This important book thereby provides a fresh perspective on nineteenth-century writing on syphilis, allowing the reader to realize the urgency of a truly critical, comparative, and transnational medical humanities.’ — Anna Magdalena Elsner, French Studies 76.2, April 2022, 298-99 (full text online)


Introduction: Body Language
Steven Wilson
Chapter 1 the Pathology of Borders
Steven Wilson
Chapter 2 the Transmission of Blood
Steven Wilson
Chapter 3 the (spiritual) Aesthetics of Pain
Steven Wilson
Conclusion: the Language(s) of Disease — Then and Now
Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson

Bibliography entry:

Wilson, Steven, The Language of Disease: Writing Syphilis in Nineteenth-Century France, Research Monographs in French Studies, 62 (Legenda, 2020)

First footnote reference: 35 Steven Wilson, The Language of Disease: Writing Syphilis in Nineteenth-Century France, Research Monographs in French Studies, 62 (Legenda, 2020), p. 21.

Subsequent footnote reference: 37 Wilson, p. 47.

(To see how these citations were worked out, follow this link.)

Bibliography entry:

Wilson, Steven. 2020. The Language of Disease: Writing Syphilis in Nineteenth-Century France, Research Monographs in French Studies, 62 (Legenda)

Example citation: ‘A quotation occurring on page 21 of this work’ (Wilson 2020: 21).

Example footnote reference: 35 Wilson 2020: 21.

(To see how these citations were worked out, follow this link.)

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