The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp

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Night Witches, Nazi Hunters, Heroes: The Women of Aviation Group 122

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Mariya Dolina with a Pe-2

Just two years ago, the US Army finally opened all combat positions to women. What seemed like an obvious and badly belated move to many of us nevertheless triggered a resurgence of the perennial argument about women’s fitness for combat. The tired arguments that always get trotted out for why women shouldn’t serve in combat — physical fitness, unit cohesion, dirty vaginas — are dubious in any case, but to anyone who has studied WWII Soviet history, they’re just plain hilarious. It turns out that there’s no question as to whether women can serve in combat. They already have. And they didn’t just serve: they kicked ass.

Unlike the other Allied nations where women were restricted to non-combat positions like nurses, the Soviet Union recruited thousands of women to serve in all kinds of positions both in and out of combat, from partisans to tank commanders. Women were especially prized as snipers, since they were believed to be more focused and patient than men; top sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko racked up over 300 kills. By the end of the war, women were estimated to make up about 10% of the Soviet military.

But I’m going to talk about some of the most fascinating women of World War II: the members of the all-female Aviation Group 122. Russian women had long been involved in aviation beginning with World War I recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya. Flying clubs were popular among Soviet youth of both genders. When Germany invaded, there were many women with pilot’s licenses eager to get into combat. And by eager, I mean very eager, as pilot Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recounts:

There were several girls who had asked to go to the front, and they were turned down. So they stole a fighter plane and flew off to the front. They just couldn’t wait. (Strebe 15)

Celebrated navigator Marina Raskova, famed for the record-setting long-distance flight that ended with her surviving alone for ten days in the Siberian taiga, approached Stalin with an idea: an aviation group composed entirely of women, from the pilots to the navigators to the command staff. The result was Aviation Group 122, which eventually became three regiments: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment, and most famous of all, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

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Lydia Litvyak, the “White Rose of Stalingrad”

So how did they do? Did they prove as capable as the male regiments? As if you need to ask.

The fighter regiment produced both of the world’s only female fighter aces: 11-kill Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, the famed “White Rose of Stalingrad,” credited with 12 solo and four joint kills. Budanova and Litvyak operated as free hunters, pairs of elite pilots who prowled for enemy planes like total bosses. According to legend, Litvyak painted white flowers on her plane’s fuselage and German fighter pilots would flee when they saw them.

The dive bomber regiment, initially commanded by Raskova herself, faced a lot of skepticism about its airwomen’s ability to handle the high-tech Pe-2, a twin-tailed bomber feared by rookie pilots and beloved by talented ones. Flying the Pe-2 was demanding both mentally and physically. The pilot often had to brace against the navigator’s back in order to pull back the control stick with enough force to get the plane off the ground, and recharging the machine gun required 60 kilograms of force. But the 125th performed well and five of its airwomen were decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honor.

Then there were the night bombers. Flying small, antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes that were designed to be trainers and equipped with no parachutes, no radios, and only the most rudimentary instruments, they didn’t exactly have success dropped in their laps, yet they became one of the most decorated Soviet air regiments, flying some 24,000 combat sorties and producing 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Germans were terrified of them. According to one POW, “When the women started bombing our trenches…the radio stations on this line warned all the troops, ‘Attention, attention, the ladies are in the air, stay at your shelter'” (Noggle 46).

It was the Germans who gave them the name by which they were best known. Mechanic Nina Yegorova says:

The Germans called the crews night witches. They liked to sleep at night, and our aircraft made the Germans’ life not so easy; they disturbed their sleep. Sometimes, when our planes were throttled back gliding in over the target, the Germans would cry out, “Night witches!”, and our crews could hear them. (Noggle 64)

The three women’s regiments were not restricted to safe missions or assigned to less hot parts of the front; they flew similar missions to the male regiments and ended up with more than their share of stories. Two 586th pilots, Raisa Surnachevskaya and Tamara Pamyatnykh, received a surprise when they were scrambled to intercept two enemy aircraft, but discovered that there had been a miscommunication and there were actually forty-two enemy aircraft. Surnachevskaya recounts:

At first we thought they must be birds, there were so many of them. Then we realized they were German dive bombers, they were approaching the railroad station, and the station was full of trains. (Noggle 187)

When they radioed their commander for instructions, they received the order to attack. They dove through the formation twice, each shooting down a bomber on each pass, scattered the formation, and forced the bombers to drop their bombs in the fields and return without reaching their target. During the fight, Surnachevskaya saw Pamyatnykh hit:

My plane was not damaged by their gunfire, but Tamara’s plane was, and I was filled with despair when I saw her plane dropping away, spinning and on fire. (Noggle 187)

From Pamyatnykh’s perspective, the experience was even more dramatic:

I was being thrown about with so much force that my arms were flailing about, and I couldn’t even get hold of the seat belt. I had already opened the canopy. My life flew in front of my eyes. I wanted to jump, but I couldn’t open the belt. I didn’t feel fear, but I thought I was going to die. At last I got the belt open and I didn’t even jump—I was thrown out of the cockpit! I pulled the ring of my parachute, and it opened. When I landed, I started touching myself to see if I had injuries because I thought I had been severely wounded. I had blood on my face, and I felt very ill. My face was hurt, and the blood was running down. When my parachute opened, I was only 150 meters from the ground.

I looked up to the sky and saw that Raisa had circled around and was making another attack on the bombers. I thought, if she makes that attack she will never survive. I went to the telegraph station to report to my regiment that my aircraft was down and destroyed. Then I saw Raisa walking across a field, and it was wintertime, and there was snow, and we were in our fur boots. We came together and embraced each other and had the feeling that we had both been given birth again. (Noggle 160-161)

Pamyatnykh and Surnachevskaya would both survive the war, and Surnachevskaya also achieved the distinction of being probably the only person ever to fly in combat while pregnant.

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Polikarpov Po-2

Of course it wasn’t all miraculous survivals and victories against the odds. The Eastern Front was the most dangerous place to be during World War II and the airwomen of Aviation Group 122 were in the thick of it. They suffered heavy casualties, especially the 46th Guards in their fragile, flammable biplanes, and had all kinds of harrowing experiences. While American pilots decorated their aircraft with cartoons and pin-ups, the planes of the 46th Guards bore vows of vengeance.

At the beginning of the war, pilot Yevdokiya Nosal had just delivered a baby when her maternity hospital was bombed. She was rescued unharmed from the rubble. Her baby was not. She joined the 46th Guards with a score to settle. Her navigator recalls, “My pilot strove to fly as many operational sorties as possible every night. She certainly had a good reason to want to square her account with the Nazis” (Cottam 134).

Nosal, one of the 46th Guards’ best pilots, was later shot in the head while on a sortie. Her navigator was forced to fly the plane back on her own (the Po-2 had dual controls because it was a trainer), holding Nosal’s body up by the collar to keep it from slumping forward onto the control stick. Nosal posthumously became the regiment’s first Hero of the Soviet Union.

Any Westerner studying Aviation Group 122 can’t help being struck by both the similarities and the differences between their experiences and the experiences of Western women in nontraditional fields. The USSR was established on a foundation of egalitarian Bolshevism, and while it had taken a sharp turn to the right under Stalin, it remained far more progressive on gender issues than the West in many ways, most notably in the presence of women in every sector of the workforce. Thus, while the resistance many of the women met in learning to fly may seem familiar, the reasons given by 46th Guards pilot Antonina Bondareva are not:

Father was dead against it, though. Until then all members of my family had been steelworkers, with several generations of blast-furnace workers. My father believed that a woman could be a steelworker but never a pilot. (Pennington 9)

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586th pilot with French pilot

The women faced a lot of belittling and skepticism, especially at the beginning. When the 46th Guards arrived at the front, their division commander asked the commander of their air army, “I’ve received 112 little princesses. Just what am I supposed to do with them?” (Pennington 77) Male fighter pilots often refused to let the female pilots fly with them as wingmen, ostensibly to protect them, but actually robbing the rookie pilots of the chance to fly alongside experienced veterans. And when Raskova brought in a male instructor to teach dive-bombing to the pilots of the 587th, he told her outright that it was ridiculous to think that women could learn dive-bombing. Once he had flown with them, he had to eat his words.

However, in many ways, the women’s air regiments were notable for the lack of special treatment they received. Valentin Markov, who commanded the 125th Guards, notes that “My superiors made no distinction between male and female units, of which the girls were very proud” (Cottam 22). They served in the same divisions with male regiments (the 586th and 125th both eventually incorporated some men), flew the same types of missions, and were issued men’s uniforms, right down to the underwear.

Although the selection process was stringent, they were never given a physical, not even the armorers, who were expected to wrangle 100-kilo bombs. Russians simply took the strength and hardiness of their women for granted. Meanwhile, across the pond, American WASPs were forbidden from flying while on their periods (an order that was, unsurprisingly, rarely followed, since their male superior officers didn’t want to ask).

The women of Aviation Group 122 were proud of their gender. 46th Guards chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya says, “The first slogan of the regiment was: You are a woman, and you should be proud of that” (Noggle 29). Their all-female status was a particular point of pride for the 46th Guards, who were adamant about maintaining it. Historian Reina Pennington describes a visit from Rokossovskii, the commander of the front, and Vershinin, the commander of the air army:

Before the assembled regiment, Rokossovskii turned to Vershinin and said, “It’s probably hard for the girls to do everything themselves. Maybe we should send them ten or twenty men to help hang bombs and do other heavy work?” But the women protested loudly, “We don’t need any helpers, we’re managing just fine on our own!” (Pennington 74)

There is a curious tension between this pride (and the great lengths to which the airwomen went in order to serve) and the general agreement amongst them that it was unnatural for women to fight. 46th Guards navigator Alexandra Akimova expresses a typical opinion:

The very nature of a woman rejects the idea of fighting. A woman is born to give birth to children, to nurture…To be in the army in crucial periods is one thing, but to want to be in the military is not quite natural for a woman.

I think American women have the idea of romanticism connected with being in the military, and it leads them to want to be a part of it. That is probably because they have not fought a battle in their own country for a hundred years and don’t know the nature of war. If the women of the world united, war would never happen! (Noggle 94)

Nearly all of the other airwomen echo this sentiment. 586th formation commander Klavdiya Pankratova, however, disagrees:

I have a strong belief that it doesn’t matter whether it is a woman or a man at the controls; a woman can be a military pilot, she can fulfill combat missions if a misfortune like war falls upon the heads of the people of a country.

And then it came to who should retire. It was not the men, of course; I was made to retire, and I didn’t want to. (Noggle 184)

All three women’s regiments were disbanded at the end of the war and nearly all the women had to stop flying. Yet few of them expressed Pankratova’s frustration. Most of them were simply so grateful for the war to be over that they were glad to leave their military careers behind them and return to civilian life.

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Marina Raskova. Russian stamp, 2012

On an individual level, the airwomen ran the full spectrum of gender expression. On one end of the spectrum, some of them, especially those who had flown previously in male regiments or flight clubs, adopted traditionally masculine attitudes either through personal preference or as a way of legitimizing themselves as aviators. One such example is 46th Guards pilot Tatiana Makarova. Fellow pilot Natalya Melkin describes a teenaged Makarova this way:

Each morning, when everyone was still asleep, the thin girl in blue overalls rushed along her quiet street to the first streetcar…Always a little ashamed of looking too feminine and not at all like a pilot, Tanya, to make up for it, strove to put on a reckless and merry air, and purposely spoke in a somewhat rude tone, but she never succeeded in fooling anyone. (Cottam 159-160)

On the other hand, most of the women were unashamedly feminine in their gender presentation, none more so than Lydia Litvyak. According to a male pilot who flew with them, while Litvyak’s wingman and close friend, Katya Budanova, “hardly stood out from the fellows,” Litvyak was “a model of femininity and charm.” Her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, recounts:

Lilya [Lydia’s nickname] bleached her hair white, and she would send me to the hospital to get hydrogen peroxide liquid to do it. She took pieces of parachute, sewed them together, painted it different colors, and wrapped it around her neck.

Lilya was very fond of flowers, and whenever she saw them she picked them. She would arrive at the airfield early in the morning in the summer, pick a bucket of flowers, and spread them on the wings of her plane. (Noggle 196)

Rakobolskaya makes it clear that becoming soldiers did not mean that the airwomen had to become masculine:

Of course, we were not transformed overnight into a kind of pseudo-male soldiers. Girls stayed girls; they embroidered forget-me-nots on footcloths, flew kittens in their aircraft, danced on the airfield in non-operational weather and, at times, cried at the slightest provocation. However, most important, every day they fought better and better. (Cottam 117)

The individual stories of the women of Aviation Group 122 demonstrate the complete disconnect between gendered behaviors and combat performance. Litvyak and Budanova were complete opposites, but they both became aces. The women of all three regiments fought bravely, received many decorations, and earned the respect of all the men who had initially doubted them.

And, as far as I know, nobody ever had a problem with a dirty vagina.

Sources

Cottam, Kazimiera J., ed. Women in Air War: The Eastern Front of World War II. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1998.

Milanetti, Gian Piero. Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War: A Pictorial History. Rome: Instituto Bibliografico Napoleone, 2013.

Noggle, Anne. A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

Pennington, Reina. Wings, Women, & War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Strebe, Amy Goodpaster. Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2011.

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Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, and retired mad scientist. Her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, tells the story of the 46th Guards through the eyes of impetuous teen pilot Valka and her shy childhood sweetheart as they fight on opposite ends of the Eastern Front. It comes out on October 3; you can pre-order it here. Find Gwen on Twitter @gwenckatz.

A Secret Gay Brotherhood at the Court of the Sun King

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Louis de Bourbon, by Pierre Mignard

Philippe de France, brother of Louis XIV, was always known to have a preference for men. It was no secret. Although the king’s brother was married twice and fathered plenty of children, his real love was a man three years younger than him. In 17th century France, homosexuality was a crime and Louis XIV himself was no fan of men loving men, yet had to tolerate it due to his brother. After all, if he were to punish the men of his court who openly showed off their male lovers, he would have to start with his own flesh and blood.

It was not just his brother Philippe who loved men. Their father, Louis XIII was rumoured to have preferred men, there was also their uncle César de Vendôme, whose Parisian town-house was nicknamed Hôtel de Sodome, and even Louis XIV’s son, the comte de Vermandois. Named Louis after his father, his mother Louise de La Vallière retired to a convent in order to repent for her previous sinful lifestyle as mistress of the king. Little Louis de Bourbon was sent to live with aunt and uncle afterwards. There he met Philippe de France’s favourite, the Chevalier de Lorraine, and was introduced to a secret brotherhood of gay men both belonged to.

It was founded somewhen between 1680 and 1682, its members the crème de la crème of the French court. Philippe de France and the Chevalier de Lorraine were founding members. This brotherhood was led by four Grand Masters and had a set of “outrageous” rules such as “wearing a cross between vest and shirt, which displays a man kicking a woman with his feet into the dust, just like the cross on which Saint-Michel kicks the demon”. The society met at various Parisian higher-class taverns, brothels and country-houses to engage in bed sports with each other or sex workers, some of them women. If women were present, they were not treated kindly by the men and were apparently even abused.

This order had plenty of novices eager to take part, one of them being Louis de Bourbon. He was a teen of fifteen and rather handsome to behold. His mother did not want to hear anything about him anymore and his father did not care much, either. Louis was introduced into the brotherhood by the Chevalier de Lorraine himself, who ordered him to sign a statement in which he swore obedience to the rules and absolute secrecy. Said paper was not to be signed with ink, the Chevalier told him, it must be signed with his semen. The Chevalier then assisted in acquiring it, making the boy faint in delight.

Although secrecy was sworn by every member, the brotherhood did not stay a secret for long. Rumours of their meetings and stories of their wild orgies circulated swiftly in Paris. Soon after, Louis XIV got wind of it himself.

He ordered his son to him. All of Louis XIV’s children had a lot of respect for their father and even feared him to some degree, Vermandois was no exception. He was eager to gain the love of his father and hoped that he might gain it by showing his loyalty to the king he was. It did not take long until he spilled the beans to his royal father. The Sun King was outraged as Vermandois told him all about the brotherhood and its members. Members nobody wanted to speak up for once the story made the rounds.

Louis XIV wanted to exile his son to the Normandy, but due to the intervention of his aunt, he was sent to Flanders as soldier instead. The Chevalier de Lorraine was ordered not to appear at court for a while. Other members, like the prince de La Roche-sur-Yon, the comte de Marsan, the chevalier de Saint-Maure, the chevalier de Mailly, the comte de Roucy and the vidame de Laon, were exiled. Louis de Bourbon died a drunkard after a short illness, aged only sixteen, in Flanders. He never managed to gain his father’s love and his mother did not mourn him.

Aurora von Goeth is a historian specialising in 17th century France and writes on www.partylike1660.com about Louis XIV and his court, with a special focus on its members and little-known stories of the time. Her first book Louis XIV and The Real Versailles will be published by Pen & Sword in spring 2018.

Sources

Barker, Nancy. Brother to the Sun King.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné.

I Thought they Had Been Nuns: Great Wine and Failed Sexual Transactions

DSH Zante 1810s William Turner

Zante, 1810s. William Turner.

On January 31, 1599, John Chamberlain wrote a letter to his friend and relative Dudley Carleton. There, sandwiched between the Duke of Florence complaining of English piracy and poor Sir Henry Poore’s non-life-threatening shot in the head, were the following words: “Here is a great and curious present going to the Great Turke, which no doubt will be much talked of, and be very scandalous among other nations, especially the Germans.”

This “great and curious present” departed England on The Hector in February of 1599, bound for the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed III. It went as a rather overdue acknowledgment of his becoming Sultan upon the death of his father in 1595, and it was to be presented by the English representative, Henry Lello, so that he could kiss the hand of the Sultan and be recognized as England’s ambassador. The gift was a magnificent clockwork organ, sadly smashed just a few short years later, and its maker, who travelled with it on The Hector, was Thomas Dallam.

Dallam is a fascinating figure. He was no sailor, soldier, diplomat, or spy; he seems never to have even left England before. But from February 1599 to April 1600, he’d journey to and from the city he mostly called Constantinople (and once or twice Stamboul), and he’d write all about it. He’d write about encounters with Dunkirker pirates shortly after departure, his annoyance at the captain’s behaviour, “an infinite body of porpoises,” and the behaviour of Turks. He runs for his life on a few occasions, notes as the ship passes the birthplace of Pythagoras or of Saul, and eventually gives an incredibly stressful solo performance for the Sultan and 400 of his attendants.

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Zante. Pietr Johan Schei, 1678. 

One of the aspects that is most interesting about this unlikely Elizabethan diplomat and world traveller, is how strikingly he sometimes resembles the modern tourist. He grumbles at the greed of foreign officials. He wonders at the climate off the shores of southern Spain, struck by the difference from England in much the same way that many, many, more English travellers would be in centuries to come. Most amusingly, he hammers off for himself a little piece of the walls of Troy, an apparently timeless inclination to possess a bit of history.

For all of Dallam’s adventures, and his generally naive role in some rather important diplomatic dealings, one of the episodes that he gives the most attention to in his writing is an adventure of a different kind: an unsuccessful attempt to pay for sex in a hilltop house, on a Greek island he identifies as Zante, in the month of April, 1599. Zante, now known as Zakynthos, was a possession of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, but our narrator tells us that tribute was paid for it, yearly or quarterly, to “the great Turk,” the Ottoman Sultan.

Dallam and the other men of The Hector had sat at anchor for 6 long, dull days. Having most recently left Algiers, and with Turkish goods and men aboard, they were waiting out the quarantine required of a ship arriving from any part of the Ottoman domain without a Venetian letter of health. These days, tantalizingly close to shore but denied access to its pleasures, gave Dallam time to admire a little mountain. It was close to the sea, he wrote, very green, and promised to be excellent spot from which to view the whole island and the waters around it. Trapped as he was, Dallam’s liking for the little mountain swelled until he had made vow to himself: he would climb that mountain as soon as he set foot ashore, before he’d even paused for food or for drink, in fact.

Dallam’s fellows aboard the boat seem to have been less keen, but he worked on them; he had days to do so after all, and eventually he’d extracted commitments from two of them: Michael Watson, Dallam’s joiner, and Edward Hale, a coachman (The Hector was also carrying a coach as a gift for the Sultan’s mother, an immensely powerful figure in her own right), would be joining him on his little hike up the hill, and Dallam would not let them forget their promises.

The day came, and a small payment to some of the ship’s sailors secured their passage in a little boat to near the foot of the hill. It was early in the morning, and the trio began their climb. Having received stern instructions while aboard that they were not to carry weapons, they had only “cudgels in [their] hands,” and perhaps that helps account for Watson’s apprehensions.

Dallam describes their first encounter on the hill:

“So, ascending the hill about half a mile, and looking up, we saw upon a story of the hill above us a man going with a great staff on his shoulder, having a clubbed end, and on his head a cape which seemed to us to have five horns standing outright, and a great herd of goats and sheep followed him.”

The “great herd” gives a pretty clear indication of the man’s real business there on the green slopes, but it was still all too much for Watson: the clubbed staff, the horned cape, their lack of weapons. Watson fearfully complained that surely these were savage men on this island, men who would certainly do them wrong. He was convinced to go a little higher, high enough to convincingly identify the herdsman as, in fact, a herdsman, but that was it. Michael Watson, if our narrator is to be believed, spent the remainder of the morning hiding in a bush, and Dallam and the coachman carried on, Hale saying “something faintly that he would not leave [Dallam], but see the end.”

A little way up the hill, and the now-duo came upon another local inhabitant, and he also did not strike them down, only bowing towards them with a hand on his breast and smile to his face. This, Dallam seems to have taken as solid proof “of what people they be that inhabit here,” but Edward, who Dallam at this point in the story began to call Ned, was less confident. He was all for going back at once. Dallam, however, asserted that his oath to himself would allow nothing less than as far as they might possibly go. So, go they did, all the way up.

DSH Zante map engraving

Map of Zante

The top of the hill was not only a very pleasant place from which to view the island and the sea. It was also occupied by at least two buildings. The first one, Dallam tells us, was small, square, and made of limestone. It had housed an anchorite (a religious devotee bound by oath to an enclosed space) until only recently, and Dallam writes that she had “died but a little before [their] coming thither, and that she had lived five hundred years.” At the other, across the green, a man inside passed a copper kettle to another outside.

Ned saw no reason to go closer, but Dallam, as you might have gathered, was not the sort of tourist who retreated to the comforts of his hotel room and locked the unfamiliar world outside. He seems to have been driven by the confidence of a craftsman whose organ had, he will sometimes mention, been approved of by Queen Elizabeth herself, and also by a tremendous curiosity. During this voyage, he’d try to speak with Syrian soldiers, wonder at his first sight of carrier pigeons at work, and find occasion to peer in at the Ottoman Sultan’s concubines as they played with a ball. Here, after a morning’s uphill walk in hot weather, he was also driven by thirst.

Waving aside Ned’s protests, he went forward (“boldly,” he says), and by gestures made it known to the man with the kettle that he wanted to drink. The stranger did not offer him water though. Instead, he pulled up a carpet that lay against the wall and produced 6 bottles of wine and also a silver bowl which he soon filled with red wine and handed to Dallam. Ned was still questioning the wisdom of all of this from a little ways off, but Dallam drank from the bowl and found it to be “the best that ever [he] drank.” The bowl was refilled, this time with white, and this wine, Dallam pronounced, was even better than the first.

Now, Dallam wondered how he might repay the man for his hospitality. The cautious Ned consented to come forward and take a little water, and Dallam brought out the only money he had on him, a silver Spanish coin; it was not accepted. Then, he produced a decorative knife he had in his pocket. It was gilded, graven, and sheathed, and the man was very pleased with this. Dallam and Ned were promptly ushered round the corner and into what they realized was a chapel, complete with a priest giving mass, candles burning, and strange and unfamiliar decorations all about. The service made no sense to either Englishman, but soon it was over and they were brought into another space:

“… he led us through the chapel into the cloister, where we found standing eight very fair women, and richly apparelled, some in red satin, some white … their heads very finely attired, chains of pearls and jewels in their ears, seven of them very young women, the eighth was ancient, and all in black. I thought they had been nuns, but presently after I knew they were not.”

There in the cloister, the two were settled down to a meal of “good bread and very good wine and eggs.” Ned still would only drink water, but Dallam indulged himself fully, and wondered at the women, three of whom were standing very close now, looking on. He “knew they were not nuns,” but he wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. He offered one a bowl of wine, but she would not accept it. He tried again with his Spanish silver, but this too was rejected. He produced another of the decorated knives and pressed that on the older woman who at first would not take it, but then did. The group of women gathered around it, seeming to admire it, he thought, and then bowed towards him in thanks. He was no closer to a successful transaction.

Shortly after, he and Hale left in good spirits, doubtless energized by the turn the day had taken. They collected an indignant Watson from his bush, likely quite sore and badly in need of refreshment, and they went down into the town, finding others from their ship in a house marked with a white horse. Their friends within were at first angry, saying they’d looked everywhere and thought the worst, but then, Dallam writes, “When [he] had told them all the story, they wondered at [his] boldness, and some Greeks that were there said that they never heard that any English man was ever there before.”

So interested was Dallam’s audience, that nine of those present decided to go immediately up for a look themselves. Their storyteller being too tired to make the walk again that day, they hired a local as a guide, and so they came to the house on the hill with information he had lacked. The thing to do, he later learned, was to go first into the chapel and to make an offering of money there, “as little as they would,” and then “they should have all kinds of entertainment.” Despite their guide, the party missed the easiest path up, and some fell and “broke their shins.” However, the whole thing seems to have been a tremendous success, enjoyed by all despite the shin breaking (which was perhaps not as bad as it sounds). Dallam wrote that, “very late in the evening, they returned safely again, and gave [him] thanks for that which they had seen.”

It’s an odd little story, one in which the narrator is ultimately unsuccessful, but also entirely unbothered by his failure. He seems to absolutely delight in showing his comrades to be buffoons (“… and laughed at him – as indeed they might, for he behaved himself very foolishly.”), or cowards (“Michael Watson, for shame, would not go in with us.”), or both. He seems to equally enjoy portraying himself as boldly venturesome, the first Englishman up the hill, a trail-blazing tourist who left his trembling companions behind to clasp hands with the locals and drink their wine. However, we also see him at a loss, unsure of what was to be done, first in payment for the wine, and then in the question of the women, stumbling where his shipmates would later succeed.

He doesn’t seem to overly regret his missed sexual opportunity, though. He’d enjoyed his little adventure on the Greek hilltop that day, with its thrill of the unfamiliar and the best wine he’d ever tasted. He’d enjoyed it enough to devote an unusually long passage of his writing to the day. We don’t know what Dallam intended to do with this writing; despite the apparent interest in all things Ottoman at the time, he did not publish after returning from his very close encounter with the Sultan. But he seems to have wanted to remember his morning in the unfamiliar house, and his glee at the discomfort of Michael and Ned.

Sources
Dallam, Thomas, John Covel, and James Theodore Bent. Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant. London: Hakluyt Society, 1893.

Chamberlain, John. Letters Written by John Chamberlain During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1861.

Devon Field is a history podcaster with a Humanities M.A., telling the stories of lesser known historical figures and, through their narratives, exploring their context and place in larger events. Particularly, he’s interested in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and their travellers, figures that passed between cultural worlds and revealed sometimes surprising connections. You can hear more about Thomas Dallam and others like (and unlike) him on the Human Circus podcast.
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Fanny Burney and Her Mastectomy

280px-Frances_d'Arblay_('Fanny_Burney')_by_Edward_Francisco_Burney-wiki

Fanny Burney

In 1811, before anesthesia was invented, Frances Burney d’Arblay had a mastectomy aided by nothing more than a wine cordial. She wrote such a gripping narrative about her illness and operation afterwards readers today still find it riveting and informative.

Fanny came from a large family and was the third child of six. From an early age, she began composing letters and stories, and she became a phenomenal diarist, novelist, and playwright in adulthood. Certainly, her skillful writing was a primary reason her mastectomy narrative had such appeal.

In her narrative, Fanny provides “psychological and anatomical consequences of cancer … [and] while its wealth of detail makes it a significant document in the history of surgical techniques, its intimate confessions and elaborately fictive staging, persona-building, and framing make it likewise a powerful and courageous work of literature in which the imagination confronts and translates the body.” Prior to her surgery, she had written similar works about “physical and mental pain to satirize the cruelty of social behavioral strictures, especially for women.”

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds-wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Fanny grew up in England and had been embraced by the best of London society. She had served in George III and Queen Charlotte’s court as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes. Moreover, she was admired by such literary figures as Hester Thrale, David Garrick, and Edmund Burke. Fanny also befriended Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer who made significant contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. In fact, some of Fanny’s best revelations are about Johnson, how he teased her, and the fondness that he held for her.

In 1793, Fanny married Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay and became Madame d’Arblay. D’Arblay was an artillery officer who served as adjutant-general to the famous hero of the American Revolution, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. D’Arblay had fled France for England during the Revolution just as had many other Frenchmen. However, in 1801, d’Arblay was offered a position in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government. He and Fanny relocated to France in 1802 and moved to Passy (the same spot where Benjamin Franklin and the princesse de Lamballe had lived), and they remained in France for about ten years.

Larrey and Dubois-x300

Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (left) and Antoine Dubois (right)

While living in France, Fanny suffered breast inflammation in her right breast in 1804 and 1806. She initially dismissed the problem but then in 1811 the pain became severe enough that it affected her ability to use her right arm. Her husband became concerned and arranged for her to visit Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard, as well as the leading French obstetrician, surgeon, and anatomist, Antoine Dubois.

The French doctors treated Fanny palliatively but as there was no response to the treatment, it was determined surgery was necessary. Fanny’s surgery occurred on 11 September 1811. At the time, surgery was still in its infancy and anesthesia unavailable. Cocaine was later isolated, determined to be an effective local anesthetic, and used for the first time in 1859 by Karl Koller. So, it must have been horrific for Fanny to experience the pain of a mastectomy with nothing more than a wine cordial that may have contained some laudanum. Fanny was traumatized by the surgery and it took months before she wrote about the surgery details to her sister Esther exclaiming:

“I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing convinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could alone save from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead – & M. Dubois placed upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, & made their examination – Oh what a horrible suspension! … The pause, at length, was broken by Dr. Larry [sic], who in a voice of solemn melancholy, said ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein?”

Fanny went on to describe “torturing pain” and her inability to restrain her cries as the doctors cut “though veins – arteries – flesh – nerves.” Moreover, she noted:

“I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. … I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, and so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into my Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – and worse than ever … I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture. “

Despite the excruciating pain, Fanny lived through the operation, and her surgery was deemed a success. Larrey produced a medical report about his brave patient stating that he removed her right breast at 3:45pm and that Fanny showed “un Grand courage.” Courageous as she was, there was no way for doctors to determine if Fanny’s tumor was malignant or if she suffered from mastopathy.

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Fanny’s Commemorate Plaque. Courtesy of Bath-heritage.co.uk

Fanny’s healing took a long time, and while still recuperating, she and husband returned to England in 1812. Six years later, in 1818, her husband died from cancer, and she died twenty-two years later, at the age of eighty-seven, on 6 January 1840 in Lower Grosvenor-street in London. As Fanny had requested, a private funeral was held in Bath, England, and attended by a few relatives and some close friends. She was laid to rest in Walcot Cemetery, next to her beloved husband and her only son Alexander, who had died three years earlier. Their bodies were then moved during redevelopment of the Walcot Cemetery to the Haycombe Cemetery in Bath and are buried beneath the Rockery Garden.

References

DeMaria, Jr., Robert, British Literature 1640-1789, 2016
“Died,” in Northampton Mercury, 18 January 1840
Epstein, Julia L., “Writing the Unspeakable: Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy and the Fictive Body,” in Representations, No. 16 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 131-166
Madame D’Arblay, in Evening Mail, 20 January 1840
Madame D’Arblay’s Diary, in Evening Mail, 18 May 1842
“The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay), Volume VI, France 1803-1812,” in Cambridge Journals 

61yLoQ9ugKL._SX345_BO1204203200_-347x381Geri Walton has long been interested in history and fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website, geriwalton.com which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, discusses the French Revolution and looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe.
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Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

 

Beggar’s Benison: Masturbation and Free Love in 18th Century Scotland

testing platter

The Test Platter of The Beggar’s Benison. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the University of St. Andrews).

Men are gross. I should know – I am one.

But don’t take it from me. Take, for example, the eighteenth-century Scottish men’s club, “The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of Beggar’s Benison and Merryland,” or Beggar’s Benison for short. Formed in 1732 in the small town of Anstruther in Fife, this club comprised men of all ages, and of ranks ranging from tradesmen and merchants to government officials, eventually even including royalty. Its members came together – yes, in that sense of the term – to celebrate male sexuality and the idea of free love. The effluvia of their activity was collected on a “test plate” bearing an engraving of vulva and penis and the motto “The Way of a Man with a Maid.”

This pastime resulted in some interesting meeting minutes: “18 assembled, and Frigged upon the Test Platter. The origin and performance were discussed. The Platter was filled with Semen, each Knight at an average did not ‘benevolent’ [donate] quite a horn spoonful.”(1)

Masturbation was also key to initiating new members, who had to prove their manhood. In the initiation ritual, the novice would lay his erect penis on the test platter, then “The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.”(2)

As homo-erotic as this undoubtedly is, the Benison wasn’t a proto-gay club. Those already existed and were known derogatorily as “molly houses.” In these establishments, men seeking sex with men could meet each other with somewhat less fear of discovery than in other venues, at a time when the punishment for sodomy was transportation or execution. The Beggar’s Benison wanted to distance itself from any such suspicions, either out of homophobia or fear of prosecution (probably both). While its Code promoted “fair trade and legal entry” in sexual matters, it also sought to prevent “a preposterous and Contraband Trade too frequently practiced.”

prick glass

The Wig Club’s prick glass (often misattributed to the Beggar’s Benison). Anyone attempting to drink from it was likely to get a good dowsing, so it was probably used only to initiate new members to the Wig Club.

But the grossness doesn’t stop with semen-filled platters. Other relics of the club included a wig supposedly made of the pubic hair of King Charles II’s mistresses (and have you ever noticed the size of Restoration-era wigs?). Eighteenth-century dandies sometimes adorned their hats with tufts of pubic hair as trophies of their conquests, and this wig was just a much larger version. It would later be transferred to the elite Edinburgh Wig Club (an offshoot of the Benison), and became that club’s icon. Allegedly, the loss of the wig to the Benison’s rival inspired King George IV to donate his own mistresses’ pubic hairs to the club, of which he was already an honorary member. (Unfortunately, the wig disappeared in the early 1900s, but we still have the Wig Cub’s prick glass, right)

The childish jokes almost write themselves. But does the Beggar’s Benison only merit either a derisive laugh or a disgusted “ewww!”?

In his 2001 book on the club, David Stevenson argues that behind what seems a particularly gross frat-boy bawdiness lay an Enlightenment sex-positivity. In contrast to the Puritan view that allowed sex, even within marriage, only for procreation, the Benison aligned itself with other Enlightenment thinkers in viewing sex as pleasurable in itself. This was also a time of rabid anti-masturbation sentiment, which began in 1715 with the publication of Onania, a pamphlet warning that self-pleasure led to “stunted growth, disorders of the penis and testes, gonorrhea, epilepsy, hysteria, consumption, and barrenness.”(3)Stevenson cover

The club can be seen as a reaction to such hysteria: a bold statement of the rights of man to fap when he pleases.

But what of women? As usual with Enlightenment thinking, liberty and equality only went so far. Like the other libertines of the time (and some today), the club viewed women both with veneration and as little more than objects. The Merryland in the club’s name refers to the body of Woman, to be explored and possessed (see the above-mentioned pubic hairs). At best, the club promoted “fair trade” or “free trade” between the sexes, but the emphasis was always on male freedom to pursue “commerce” with “Merryland.” Sexual freedom for the wives and daughters of these worthy family men? Lol.

And I doubt these men wanted their own daughters to participate in a service some village girls performed for the club. The Benison employed “posture girls” (eighteenth-century strippers), although, oddly, it kept its masturbatorial and viewing activities separate. Speaking to or touching the girls was forbidden, and the girls (literally girls, as they ranged in age from 15 to 17) were allowed to wear masks while posing nude. Then every Knight “passed in turn and surveyed the Secrets of Nature.”(4) Ironically, “free love” becomes sex (or titillation) for cash.

The sex-for-cash theme goes back to the club’s founding myth, in which the Stuart King James V, traveling in commoner’s disguise, comes to Dreel Burn, a stream dividing the two neighborhoods of Anstruther. Not wanting to get his feet wet (how noble!), he employs the services of a “beggar lass” to carry him on her back across the water. He gives her a gold coin for the service, and she gives him a blessing or “benison” in return: “May your purse naer be toom [empty], and your horn aye in bloom.” From this verse of double entendres sprang the club’s salutation: “May prick nor purse never fail you.”(5)

Edinburgh Beggar's seal

The Seal of the Edinburgh branch of the Beggar’s Benison, bearing the image of the prick and purse. The anchor has nothing to do with the navy, but is a sexual metaphor (a man “dropping anchor” in a woman’s “harbor”).

So the Beggar’s Benison wasn’t just a sex club, but wove Jacobite and free-trade themes into its codes and mythology. The trade metaphors may be even more important than the sexual aspect. The merchants of the club, like most dutiful Scots, engaged in smuggling to circumvent onerous English taxes. Think of them as early Libertarians. Stevenson even suggests that the bawdy activities of the club might have been a mere cover to allow smugglers and corrupt customs officials to meet. And who would want to check up on the club, considering the type of activities one might find at its meetings?

In the end, the Beggar’s Benison may have been little more nor less than the equivalent of a bunch of guys visiting a strip club, with all the sexism that implies. Stevenson makes the case that they kept to themselves and harmed no one, apart from some of the posture girls’ reputations. They also hosted lectures on what amounted to sex education, encouraging the use of condoms: “the sexual embrace should be independent of the dread of a conception which blasts the prospects of the female.”(6)

As Stevenson points out, far worse can be said of other, better-remembered Scots, such as Robert Burns, whose affairs led to illegitimate children and untimely ends for the mothers, or James Boswell, whose seventeen bouts of gonorrhea no doubt contributed to the spread of venereal disease among the many, many prostitutes he frequented. Compared to these and other eighteenth-century rakes (the denizens of the far more notorious Hellfire Clubs, for instance), the men of the Beggar’s Benison merely seem like spunky schoolboys.

Sources

(1) Stevenson, David. The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and their Rituals. Tuckwell Press, 2001. p. 38

(2) Stevenson, p. 39

(3) Allen, Peter L. The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 87

(4) Stevenson, p. 38

(5) Stevenson, p. 12

(6) Stevenson, p. 36

Further Reading

Black, Annetta. Objects of Intrigue: Beggar’s Benison Prick Glass. Atlas Obscura. (Unfortunately, this article misattributes the intriguing prick glass as belonging to the Beggar’s Benison. According to Stevenson, it belonged to the later Wig Club.)

Perrottet, Tony. Hellfire Holidays. Slate.

Roderick, Danielle. Masturbation Clubs of the 1700s. The Hairpin.
http://www.slate.com/

HogueFinal A_macLarry Hogue’s writing is all over the place and all over time. He started out in nonfiction/nature writing with a personal narrative/environmental history of the Anza-Borrego Desert called All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. After moving to Michigan, he switched to writing fiction. He’s a fan of folk music, and got the idea for Daring and Decorum while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s outstanding adaptation of Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. When not speaking a word for nature or for forgotten LGBT people of history, he spends his white-knighting, gender-betraying energies on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes on the streets of Lansing, MI, and Washington DC. His new historical romance, Daring and Decorum, is due out August 1 from Supposed Crimes. As might be expected from this article, the novel can be described as “Regency Romance, minus the hunky, shirtless lords.”
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