The final episode of the first season of The Borgias has Charles VIII entering the palace at Naples and finding masses of dead bodies, consumed by a plague. He wonders if the “Borgia Pope” knew about this plague when he invested Charles with the crown of Naples.
As I’ve said, I don’t so much mind some twisting of history to advance the story. However, this one might take it a disease too far for me.
Indeed, the army of King Charles was infected by a grande verole, or “great pox,” but it was not related to bubonic plague. What struck his army after the “celebration” of the conquest of Naples was syphilis, albeit likely a much more virulent form of it than the modern disease. Theories differ to this day whether this was a sudden mutation of an existing but relatively unknown disease in Europe, or a new disease brought back from the New World by Columbus and his explorations. (or should that be “explorations?”)
By the time Charles and his army returned to France, it was clear that disease was crippling his army. During the Battle of Forova, the illness was significantly degrading the fighting ability of his army. Upon return to France, the army was disbanded. Charles had drawn his forces from around Europe, and with the end of the campaign the disease had become an epidemic throughout France, Switzerland, and Germany (who provided the backbone of Charles’ infantry force). By 1497, the disease had spread to England and Scotland and by 1500 northeast into Scandinavia, Russia, and Hungary.
It was obviously a huge event, not only to the Naples campaign and the politics of Italy, but to all of Europe. So it surprises me that The Borgias portray the disease as a “plague,” especially given the penchant for sexual content in Showtime series. Although I’ll grant them this – there’s nothing sexy about syphilis.
While we’re at it, this also factors into the plot point, made repeatedly, where the French have “professional” and native armies as opposed to the Italian mercenaries. In fact, the armies of both sides were comprised of significant foreign, mercenary factions. The use of mercenaries were a critical part of the time’s history and politics, and a key factor in the history of warfare*. It just wasn’t a differentiator for the French versus the Italians.
*The failure of Spanish troops to match up with the Swiss and German pikeman was what drove the Spanish innovation towards the Colunela and Tercio Pike and Shot formations.