Letters show Frederick the Great's advice on venereal disease | University of Oxford

Letters show Frederick the Great's advice on venereal disease

One of Europe’s most prominent historical figures advised a friend on where to go to treat his venereal disease, letters discovered by an Oxford University academic show.

Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford University's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages came across some unknown letters by Frederick II of Prussia (known as 'Frederick the Great') in the Bodleian Library.

They can now be viewed in a display at the Bodleian until 11 November and are being published online at Oxford University’s Electronic Enlightenment project.

In one letter written in French in 1732, the 20-year old soldier Frederick writes to advise a fellow officer about treatment for venereal disease (VD).

Inviting his friend to confide his secret to him, he writes: 'I'll make sure you have all the necessary medicine from Dr Miraux of Potsdam. (...) I'm going to Potsdam on Tuesday, and to Berlin on Wednesday. If you have some order to give to the Whores of Berlin, you have only to let me know.'

Professor Katrin Kohl said: 'The letter tells us about the importance of Berlin brothels for the military well beyond the boundaries of the city - Frederick was stationed some 40 miles away. He was not yet in a position of power so couldn’t issue formal edicts, but he is confident about using established channels of communication between officers and the brothels.

'The letter shows that venereal disease was not openly discussed – Frederick says he will keep the news confidential. But his recommendation of a doctor in Potsdam means that there was clearly a clandestine infrastructure for dealing with the condition.

'The first law to make brothels semi-legal in Prussia came into force in 1769, during Frederick's reign. Doctors were then appointed to visit prostitutes regularly and infected women were sent for treatment to the Charité Hospital.'

She added: 'Interestingly Frederick writes the letter in French but then adds a postscript in German on a military matter. This is in line with his linguistic preferences. Keen to gain lasting international fame, he communicated in what was then considered the most prestigious language especially among the aristocracy.

'Accordingly, he promoted French literature and invited Voltaire to his court while neglecting German authors. Yet in military matters he used German, following in the footsteps of his father, 'Soldier King' Frederick William I, who despised French.'

Dr Robert McNamee, director of Oxford University’s Electronic Enlightenment (EE), said: 'Our project digitizes and interconnects correspondence from the 17th to mid-19th century and this discovery shows just how interesting and revealing letters can be.

Moreover the publication of this letter demonstrates one of Electronic Enlightenment's outstanding features, namely the ability to publish newly discovered materials within the historical context of an existing correspondence collection.

'EE already contains over 800 Frederick the Great letters drawn from a range of scholarly editions. This new letter pushes back the starting date of our Frederick collection by four years.'

Publication of this letter also marks the beginning of a collaboration between EE and Professor Kohl which will see creation of a German Enlightenment (Aufklärung) project within EE.

Frederick II of Prussia, or 'Frederick the Great', was born in 1712 and was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He is credited with leaving a major impact on the culture of modern Europe.

Professor Kohl and Dr McNamee hope that this discovery and the exhibition in the 300th year since Frederick’s birth will generate interest in extending the project.

Professor Kohl explained: 'There is so far no collected edition of Frederick's letters and it's likely that there are other unknown letters waiting to be discovered in libraries across Europe – it needs a major project to bring this material together and publish it, and we hope this event will act as an incentive.'