Mediomania: Spiritualism, Crisis, and Mediumistic Hysteria of the 19th Century

A depiction of table-turning in Le Magazine L’Illustration, 1853

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

The residents of Hydesville, New York were sure intrigued when rumors erupted of the Fox sisters and their ability to communicate with the dead through taps and rappings in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox invited the public to demonstrations of their abilities, asking the spirits to respond to questions with the correct number of knocks. And from these few taps, a religious movement grew.

But it wasn’t the need or the determination to speak with the dead that drove the development of Spiritualism. The religion came along at the right time when it was needed most by those wishing to enact social change. In the 1850s, Quakers were looking for an escape. Abolitionist Quakers in particular were in a fix. Their religion forbade them from taking a stance on measures such as abolition and women’s rights. But when the Fox sisters started knocking, those looking for an answer saw a way out.

Taking spiritualism by the horns, Quakers began to convert, picking up the torch of spiritualism in the name of women’s leadership, abolition, and a host of other social crusades. Spiritualists traveled the country to speak at assemblies and conventions, some on the subject of spiritualism, but most often at the conventions of social endeavors such as women’s right to vote and abolition. Spiritualism simply served as a means for working toward such change.

With such a surge in social improvement, women were put in a position of opportunity. Suddenly communicating with the dead meant women could assume leadership roles in the community. They became trance speakers, touring the country to speak to large assemblies. Trance mediums wrote books, counseled the distressed, and even ran for president. That would have been Victoria Woodhull in 1872. Women harnessed a power that seemed to favor the female body and used it to propel themselves up in terms of equality with men.

But with such upward movement came backlash, and such backlash took the shape of an accusation of insanity. Dr. R. Frederic Marvin finally gave a name to the disease of which spiritualism was considered to be a result. Mediomania was suddenly a diagnosis spread far and wide, labeling mediums with a type of female insanity. The female reproductive system was to blame, a system so much more “complex” than a man’s and thus in danger of such insanity. While it was not used in place of utromania, the two diseases were often linked. It was determined the angle of the uterus was the cause of the disease. If it were tilted too far forward, women would develop this mediomania and begin to exhibit its horrible symptoms.

Symptoms of this “mediumistic hysteria” often were a woman’s determination to leave traditional roles and her propensity to overuse her mind. Historian Ann Braude argues, “Doctors asserted that, if women used their brains to attempt the mental exertion required for higher education, they would overtax their systems and suffer gynecological disease.” As Marvin asserted, “She becomes possessed with the idea that she has some startling mission in the world.” Such an idea was horrifying by late 19th century standards, and mediums were deemed insane for such behavior.

Treatment was often forced upon the afflicted. I say forced because most often the cure of mediumship was the “Rest Cure.” It entailed the female subjecting to the will of the male doctor. It was believed she must no longer assert her own will in order to be healed. Such a cure inherently suggests a level of force upon the afflicted.

So while women enjoyed a blitz of equality through their abilities as mediums, it quickly came crashing down in the 1870s and into the 1880s as “science” proved these women to be simply insane. Spiritualism lost favor as it failed to organize successfully, and heretics took advantage. Doctors proclaiming the “rest cure” pronounced mediums fit for asylums, and hoax mediums caught in charades gave the movement a bad reputation. More, the movement had already accomplished a major goal in the abolition of slavery, and because of this, lost momentum in their endeavors. The Spiritualism movement would fade away by the 1880s, and with it the persecution of female mediums for their mediomania.

Jessie Clever

Source:

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Jessie Clever decided to be a writer because the job of Indiana Jones was already filled. Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them. Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset hounds.
Don’t miss To Save a Viscount. Find out more at jessieclever.com.

The “Poor-Whores Petition” and The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668

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You can’t read as much about prostitution as I do without coming across mention of the Shrove Tuesday Riots. They’re little more than a footnote now, but for years they were the terror of every working girl in greater London. Apprentices turned up in droves to participate in the “sport” of whore-bashing, which EJ Burford assures us was an ancient tradition.

Wait, what?

The Riots

For many years* in London, it was an annual tradition for the local apprentices to attack prostitutes and forcibly tear down brothels on Shrove Tuesday. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many years, as these riots were so commonplace they were rarely mentioned unless the property damage was particularly notable.

The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668 were notable for a few reasons. They lasted for several days, involved thousands of people, and the damage was so extensive that eight apprentices were actually hanged for it. When two of Elizabeth Cresswell’s brothels were destroyed, she sponsored a satirical pamphlet beseeching Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s then-mistress, to intercede on their behalf to protect them and their property from future attacks.

Samuel Pepys describes it in his diary entry from March 25th, 1668:

The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall.

The official reason for the riots was a general displeasure at the decadence of the Charles II’s court and disapproval at the immorality of London as a whole.

But was that it? Let’s take a closer look.

Apprentices

By 1660, it is estimated that there were 20,000 apprentices working in London. The whole city only had about 105,000 people at this point. Boys were apprenticed around age eleven, and would remain that way until about age twenty-four. During this thirteen-year period—almost half of the average lifespan—they worked without pay under masters obliged to monitor their behavior and see to their moral instruction as well as their vocational training. They were frequently beaten and relied on their masters for all of their basic necessities, including food, clothing, and shelter. They were forbidden from fornication, marriage, visiting taverns, or displaying immoral behavior such as violence or drunkenness.

In spite of the outrageously strict guidelines they had to agree to, London’s apprentices were notoriously rowdy. It’s not difficult to see why. One fifth of London’s total population and almost half of its men were essentially indentured servants forced to endure beatings and work long hours with no pay, little rest, and no accepted outlet for their energy short of attending church once a week. They were energetic, hormonal, and their systematic repression was so well established and legislated that it was an unquestioned aspect of society. Indeed, London’s commerce was largely dependent on the free labor provided by these boys in the name of training them in what amounted to one of history’s longest, most thankless internships.

However, guidelines are written not because everyone follows them, but because people don’t. London’s apprentices were not the models of sober, moral industry they were meant to be.

According to Peter Ackroyd, apprentices were known for heavy drinking, overindulgence, laziness, and starting fights with servants, foreigners, prostitutes, and random passersby. Additionally, they frequently rioted after football matches they attended in Cheapside (yes, really), proving once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to the annual Shrove Tuesday Riots during which apprentices assaulted prostitutes, looted, and physically pulled down brothels, they rioted over food shortages, out of drunkenness, or because of xenophobia. During the May Day riots of 1517, apprentices, artisans, and children looted the houses of foreigners in the city. In June of 1595 alone, apprentices rioted twelve times against the Lord Mayor over inflated food prices.

Apprentices were overworked, underfed, often abused, and rarely paid. Not only were they not allowed to visit prostitutes, but they couldn’t afford them. When business suffered, they were the first to be sacked, so they did not even have the security of a steady job. With no money to spend and no way to vent their frustrations, it’s no wonder they were so prone to fighting and crime. Many apprentices were executed at Tyburn for crimes from petty theft to even murder.

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In this plate from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, we can see an apprentice has turned to highway robbery and is betrayed to the law by a prostitute

Prostitutes

Of London’s 105,000 people, an estimated 3,600 were female prostitutes working from their own premises. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider the female population was only about 50,000 people, and a large number of them were children. The average person didn’t live to see their forties, and the vast majority of people in London were under thirty. This figure also does not include streetwalkers, casual prostitutes, or those operating primarily in the alleys and parks, of which there were many. It would not be an outrageous estimate to suggest that as many as thirty percent London’s women were employed as prostitutes in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Even with this generous estimate, apprentices would have outnumbered them at least two- or three-to-one.

Apprentices were badly behaved and prostitutes were frequently blamed for it. In his Industry and Idleness series, Hogarth uses a prostitute as shorthand for the apprentice’s depravity (above). Prostitutes were to be resisted at all costs: when apprentices assaulted the women, it was accepted, if not seen as completely justified. By tacitly encouraging vice with their very presence, what else could poor, impressionable boys do but resist with violent force?

When apprentice Thomas Savage was hanged at Tyburn in 1668 for murdering a fellow servant, he used his “last dying confession” to lay his fall from grace at the feet of a lewd woman:

“The first sin…was Sabbath breaking, thereby I got acquaintance with bad company, and so went to the alehouse and to the bawdy house: there I was perswaded to rob my master and also murder this poor innocent creature, for which I come to this shameful end.”

That escalated quickly.

While it’s not impossible to believe a woman could have persuaded Savage to rob his master, there’s no motive to wish her would-be paramour a murderer. It’s far more likely the unnamed woman was a convenient excuse. Prostitutes were seen as particularly toxic to apprentices and servants—a kind of gateway drug into all manner of immorality—so accusations of any misdeeds on their part would have gone unquestioned.

The_Whores'_Petition_(1668)The Poor-Whores Petition

It’s not difficult to see why London’s prostitutes were not overfond of apprentices. After the Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668—a particularly bad year—Elizabeth Cresswell took action. She was a successful madam, and while her brothels had survived both the Great Plague and the Great Fire two years before, they were destroyed by apprentices that year. Cresswell co-sponsored a pamphlet addressed to Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemaine, asking her to intercede on their behalf as the highest-ranking whore in the country. I have transcribed it here:

The Poor-Whores Petition.
To the most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of CASTLEMAINE, & c.
The Humble Petition of the Undone Company of poor distressed Whores, Bawds, Pimps, and Panders, & c.

Humbly showeth,

That Your Petitioners having been for a long time connived at, and countenanced in the practice of our Venerial pleasures (a Trade wherein your Ladyship hath great Experience, and for your diligence therein, have arrived to high and Eminent Advancement for these last years), But now, We, through the Rage and Malice of a Company of London-Apprentices, and other malicious and very bad persons, being mechanic, rude and ill-bred Boys, have sustained the loss of our habitations, Trades and Employments; And many of us, that have had foul play in the Court and Sports of Venus, being full of Ulcers, but were in a hopeful way of Recovery, have our Cures retarded through this Barbarous and Un-Venus-like Usage, and all of us exposed to very hard (shifts), being made uncapable of giving that Entertainment, as the Honour and Dignity of such persons as frequented our Houses doth call for, as your Ladyship y your won practice hath experimented the knowledge of.

We therefore being moved by the imminent danger now impending, and the great sense of our present suffering, do implore your Honour to improve your Interest, which (all know) is great, That some speedy relief may be afforded us, to prevent Our Utter Ruine and Undoing. And that such a sure Course may be taken with the Ringleaders and Abetters of these evil disposed persons, that a stop may be put unto them before they come to your Honours Pallace, and bring contempt upon your worshipping of Venus, the great Goddess whom we all adore.

Wherefore in our Devotion (your Honour being eminently concerned with us) We humbly judge it meet, that you procure the French, Irish, and English Hectors, being our approved Friends, to be our Guard, Aid, and Protectors, and to free us from these ill home bread slaves, that threaten your destruction as well as ours, that so your Ladyship may escape our present Calamity, Else we know not how soon it may be your Honours Own Case: for should your Eminency but once fall into these Rough hands, you may expect no more Favour then they have shewn unto us poor Inferior Whores.

Will your Eminency therefore be pleased to consider how highly it concerns You to restore us to our former practice with Honour, Freedom, and Safety For which we shall oblige ourselves by as many Oaths as you please, To Contribute to Your Ladyship, (as our Sisters do at Rome & Venice to his Holiness the Pope) that we may have your petition to the Exercise of all our Venerial pleasures. And we shall endeavor, as our bounden duty, the promoting of your Great Name, and the preservation of your Honour, Safety and Interest, with the hazard of our Lives, Fortunes, and HONESTY.

Needless to say, Lady Castlemaine did not take this well.

In case you skimmed it, there was some top-notch seventeenth century shade in that petition. Yes, London’s whores had suffered violence and the destruction of their property at the hands of several thousand frustrated apprentices with more testosterone than sense, but the petition was firmly tongue-in-cheek. It was a satire, and possibly written by Cresswell’s lover, Sir Thomas Player, an anti-Catholic MP who detested Lady Castlemaine.

He wasn’t the only one, it so happens. Castlemaine was Catholic in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England, with many suspecting Charles II of being Catholic himself. Castlemaine was known to be Charles’ mistress, but her elevated status as a married countess did not make her less of a whore in the eyes of London’s working girls. You may have noticed a few digs in there about Catholicism and the Pope—these were not idle comments, but pointed sedition. The concern expressed that the apprentices might be coming for her next is not only an insult to Castlemaine, but to Whitehall as a whole—the biggest, most debauched brothel of them all.

Interestingly enough, the official reason for the apprentices’ rioting was anger over the decadence of Charles’ court and London in general; the petition does not refute this, but drives it home by addressing it to the king’s mistress. If we accept that the riots were political protest as opposed to natural frustration boiling over and that the petition was moral criticism rather than just an elaborate burn on Lady Castlemaine, it would seem the apprentices and the whores were in agreement with each other with regards to the shortcomings of the court.

Although Lady Castlemaine did not intercede on behalf of London’s prostitutes as requested, the damage was such that eight apprentices were executed for rioting. Rioting was akin to treason at this point, and the penalty was likewise severe, if infrequently carried out.

While these riots are a thing of the past, Shrove Tuesday is not the only Spring holiday that has resulted in exuberant violence and sexual assault. You consider Mardi Gras and now Holi in India, which has made the news this week for the extremes one school in Delhi has gone to to keep their female students from being groped and it makes you wonder if maybe sexual repression is not the healthiest policy.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography.
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Burford, E. J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100 – 1675
Pepys, Samuel. Diary entry for March 25th, 1668.
Picard, Liza. Restoration London.

Notes

The header image is not from this riot. It illustrates sailors rioting in a brothel some years later in The Strand. Madam Damaris Page, coincidentally co-sponsor of The Poor-Whores Petition, was said to have press ganged dock workers visiting her brothel into the navy, which made her understandably unpopular. 

*At least throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

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London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

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The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

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“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

“The Lays of Ancient Rome”: Pompeian Pornography and the Museum Secretum

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Priapus as Mercury. Pompeii

On August 24, 79AD, the day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the god of fire, Hell came to the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius erupted and a searing pyroclastic cloud scorched, choked, and buried the prosperous provincial Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under thousands of tons of blistering ash and boiling mud. The thermal energy released dwarfed that of the atomic bombings of Japan, and to the witnesses and victims it must have felt like the apocalypse. ‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men,’ wrote Pliny the Younger, ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’ (Hutchinson: 1931, 495).

Entombed and oddly preserved at the moment of their destruction, the ruins lay undisturbed for over 1,600 years, while above them the Roman Empire fell, the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards fought for control of the region, the early-Christian Church became established, the Kingdom of Sicily rose, the Black Death decimated Europe, the Reformation came, and Florence, Milan, and Venice became the cultural hubs of the Renaissance. Then one day in 1709, a peasant in the small town of Resina came across some interestingly coloured marble and alabaster while digging a well…

Initial excavations in search of more of the valuable gallo antico yellow marble during the Austrian occupation of Southern Italy were inconclusive and abandoned after a couple of years. Almost thirty years later, when the region was once more under Spanish control, the army engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre was overseeing the building of a new summer palace for King Charles of the Two Sicilies when he discovered – or more correctly rediscovered – the remains of Herculaneum. With permission and a modest grant from Charles of Bourbon, who saw the potential for the discovery and display of Roman artefacts as a symbol of the continuing cultural significance of Naples, Alcubierre began the first serious excavation of the site. His workmen soon unearthed the amphitheatre of Herculaneum, and over the next eight years provided a steady stream of remarkably well-preserved artefacts for the new Museo Borbonico in Naples.

By 1745, however, the stream had begun to run dry. Archaeologists and engineers therefore turned their attention to ‘Cività Hill,’ a few miles south-east of the Herculaneum dig. ‘Cività’ means ‘City,’ and under the hill, where local legend suggested a lost city lie, possibly the small seaside town of Stabiae (also obliterated by Vesuvius), Alcubierre found the much larger port of Pompeii. The going was much easier as the city had been buried by ash rather than the mud that had set like concrete over Herculaneum, and the first intact fresco was found in 1748, in what appeared to be a dining room in a house that also contained a skeleton clasping Julio-Claudian and Flavian coins, with all that implies for the unfortunate occupant’s priorities during the cataclysm.

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Fresco, House of the Centenary, Pompeii

Classical Graeco-Roman culture had always been the foundation of art and learning in Europe, a model for ‘Civilization,’ with obvious parallels in particular drawn between the might of the Roman Empire in the past and the British in the present, the global superpower that would dominate the 19th century. Never had the modern world had such a direct window to the ancient as the one afforded by these excavations, but despite what scholars thought they knew about the glory of Rome, they were not at all ready for what they found in the ashes. There were sculptures, ceramics and frescoes depicting Roman deities, natural, mythical and historical scenes, and celebrating sporting prowess; there was even political graffiti carved into walls, and plenty of those clean, white marble statues so beloved by classicists, symbolising purity of body and spirit through aesthetic perfection. So far, so good; nothing Thomas Babington Macaulay wouldn’t have included in his epic poem ‘Pompeii’ or the Lays of Ancient Rome. But there was also something else, and a lot of it; and by 1758 rumours began to circulate in antiquarian circles concerning apparently ‘lascivious’ frescoes being discovered beneath the ruins.

Up until the cities of Vesuvius were excavated, Roman artefacts existed as cultural diaspora, the result often of quite random finds, and subject to millennia of subtle Christian censorship and academic classification. This meant in practice that those clean marble statues became the mark of antiquity, while anything more raunchy or challenging was lost among the acceptable works of art, or possibly even quietly destroyed. But Herculaneum and, especially, Pompeii afforded a different opportunity for historical study. By being effectively frozen in time, the descendants of Rome finally saw how their ancestors really lived, and they lived in a world surrounded by dirty pictures.

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Relief found over a door in Pompeii

Explicit sexual imagery was everywhere, in public and private spaces, and across social classes; clearly, anyone could unproblematically own and view this material. Unsurprisingly, there were ‘lascivious’ pieces in brothels; but there were also paintings depicting couples making love in a variety of positions in the homes of artisans, merchants and politicians, in the quarters of their servants and their slaves, as well as the public baths, while erect phalluses were carved into paving stones and doorways as symbols of potent protection (right), and beautifully rendered statues of deities cavorting with both animals and human beings were proud centrepieces of any fashionable piazza. Discovered in its original context, whether an individual piece was intended to titillate, amuse, or ward off the evil eye, it was apparent that this was not untypical, and that erotic art must have been common throughout the empire and an everyday part of Roman life.

A particularly impressive and representative example was unearthed at the Villa dei Papiri, a country house about halfway up the slope of the volcano, believed to have been built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The villa is named for its library, which contained nearly 2000 papyrus scrolls, charred but preserved, making it the most complete and intact classical library ever discovered. The villa was also notable for its owner’s large collection of statuary, which included an intact and intricately carved marble, about six inches tall, of the god Pan on his knees penetrating a she-goat (below). ‘It is impossible not to admire the expression of sensuous passion and intense enjoyment depicted on the Satyr’s features,’ wrote the French antiquarian Cesar Famin in his privately published catalogue Musee royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statyues Erotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication (1816), adding, ‘and even on the countenance of the strange object of his passion.’ He goes on to cite Herodotus, Virgil and Plutarch to demonstrate that ‘The crime of bestiality was not rare among the ancients’ (Fanin: 1871, 22).

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Pan copulating with a goat. Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum.

And the shocking revelations did not stop there. Diggers also found ornate drinking bowl masks fashioned like mouths but with a penis instead of a tongue, several bronze tintinnabulums – a kind of hanging chime depicting a winged phallus with little bells attached to it (below right) – a terracotta lamp in the shape of a particularly well-endowed faun, icons of Priapus, fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit, gardens and male genitalia, usually depicted with a large and permanent erection (hence the term ‘priapism’), and a two-foot tall painted phallus on a limestone plinth in the garden. The Catholic archaeologists were nonplussed. In their culture, sex was the ultimate taboo, with the phallus and representations thereof completely hidden from view, let alone graven images doing it in public. Their instinct was to hide it up. King Charles himself therefore placed the statue of Pan and the goat under the supervision of the royal sculptor, Joseph Canart, with strict injunction that no one should be allowed to see it.

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A tintinnabulum

As the art historian Walter Kendrick has argued, similar artefacts found elsewhere over the centuries had very probably ‘succumbed to the zealous progress of Christianity’ (Kendrick, 1996: 10); but the sheer volume of explicit material unearthed around Vesuvius presented excavators with a problem not so easily disposed of, although some Pompeii frescoes were subsequently vandalised by outraged diggers. (We know this because contemporary records include sketches of paintings that survived the volcano but have since been obliterated.) Experts and politicians knew that these artefacts were of priceless archaeological and cultural value, and, in any event, the word was out about their collective existence. They could not be destroyed, but neither could they be publicly exhibited.

The solution was concealment. Like Pan and the goat, the erotic artefacts of Pompeii and Herculaneum were hidden. At the suggestion of Francesco Gennaro Giuseppe, Duke of Calabria and later Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, over a hundred pieces were locked away in a special room in the Museo Borbonico known as the ‘Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni’ or ‘Cabinet of Obscene Objects.’ Access to these objects was limited to ‘persons of mature age and of proven morality’ (qtd in Tang: 1999, 29), which basically meant male scholars of notable social rank, who were deemed to be capable of rising above the baser instincts that exposure to these artefacts might provoke. A royal permit was required, and obviously women, children and members of the lower orders need not apply. What had begun as an Enlightenment project – the excavation of the ruins – had now become, in effect, proto-Victorian, and other ‘secret museums’ were established in Florence, Dresden and Madrid housing ‘obscene relics’ from not only Rome but also Egypt and Greece.

Thus was 19th century European culture reconciled with this erotic challenge from classical antiquity, a final invasion by the Imperium Rōmānum, unleashed from beyond the ashen grave of Vesuvius. And they needed this reconciliation, as Europe had fashioned itself in the Greco-Roman image. That this image was now demonstrably tarnished was potentially catastrophic to the collective sense of civilized identity. As historians such as Simon Goldhill, Lynda Nead and Walter Kendrick have persuasively argued, 19th century archaeologists and classicists overcame their dilemma by creating a new physical and cultural space, where both knowledge and morality were preserved, inventing the category of the ‘obscene object’ and then segregating it, with access both restricted and carefully monitored.

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Wall painting from a Pompeiian brothel

This was, in effect, a political act: the contents of the secret museums were part of classical culture, but not the part that we had inherited, and represented the dark decadence that had destroyed Rome and which the modern world must resist. Art, therefore, should only stimulate aesthetically and intellectually, never physically.

Nead, in fact, has made a strong case for the origin of the word ‘obscene’ as we understand it in the Latin term ob scena, which refers to the space off to the side of a stage (Tang: 1999, 29). While the presence of the material was not denied, museum authorities would act as if it did not exist, in exactly the same way that sex was central to the human condition yet never acknowledged in polite society. A new word was found to describe this material: pornography, from the Ancient Greek πορνογράφος ‎(pornográphos), which in turn was derived from πορνεία ‎(porneía, ‘fornication, prostitution’) and γράφω ‎(gráphō, ‘I depict’).

In 1865, the British Museum established its own Museum Secretum in order to house the erotic components of the private art collection of the antiquarian George Witt, whose bequest contained what amounted to an ‘all or nothing’ clause. Much of this material has now found its way into the main collections, but some of it is still kept under lock and key. My wife and I visited the Witt collection a few years back, while she was researching a paper, and there we saw, its access still restricted to scholars by prior appointment, a terracotta replica of the statue of Pan and the goat.

Works Cited

Fanin, Colonel. (1871). The Secret Erotic Paintings: Pictures and Descriptions of Classical Erotic Paintings, Bronzes and Statues. London.

Hutchinson, W.M.L. (ed). (1931). Letters of Pliny By Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. William Melmoth, (trans). London: William Heinemann.

Kendrick, Walter. (1996). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tang, Isabel. (1999). Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. London: Channel 4 Books.

Suggested Further Reading

Carver, Rachael. (2011). Pompeii, Pornography and Power. Norwich: University of the Arts.

Clarke, John R. (2007) Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. New York: Abrams.

— (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2006) Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2003) Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250. New York: Abrams.

— (2001) Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

Gaimster, David. (2000). ‘Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum.’ History Today L (9), September.

Goldhill, Simon. (2011). Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity. Princeton: University Press.

Grant, Michael. (1997). Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

— (1979). The Art and Life if Pompeii and Herculaneum. New York, Newsweek.

— (1971). Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Book Club Associates.

Hunt, Lynn. (1993). The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800. New York: Zone Books.

Nead, Lynda. (1992). The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Richun, Amy. ed. (1992). Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: University Press.

Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.

For more from Dr Carver, visit:

Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’

Author Blog: Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher

Academic Blog: Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic

Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

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Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).

Saints and Whores: Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia, and Mary of Egypt

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Saint Thais. Jusepe de Ribera

Between 303 and 311CE, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius masterminded the last Great Persecution, a final attempt to exterminate Christianity altogether. It failed. By 322, Christianity had successfully transitioned, thanks to the conversion of Constantine, from being a hunted sect to becoming the undisputed state religion of the Roman Empire. The dizzying speed of this change, of Christians moving from being hunted down and burned at the stake to being installed in the corridors of power, had a vast effect on the history of the Catholic Church, the history of Europe, and on the imagination of countless people.

As a persecuted people, Christians had developed a mythology where the martyr was the ultimate heroic figure. But now it was easy to be a Christian, and no more martyrs were appearing. In the Middle East, particularly, where Christians had always been persecuted the hardest, Christian hardliners began to isolate themselves in the wilds as the first Christian hermits, monks and nuns. A literature began to spring up around them.

The Lives of the Fathers (Vitae Patrum) was collected in 1602 by Heribert Rosweyde, but it compiles texts written between the fourth and seventh centuries about these lonely desert saints. Book One ends with the biographies of eleven women. Four of these Latin stories, the lives of Saints Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, have the suffix meretrix.

It means whore. The word gets translated in Latin dictionaries as “prostitute” or “harlot” or “courtesan” even, but in Latin it is a swear word. It’s a slur. Men throw it at women from the classical period on. For example, in 54 BCE it was one of the slurs addressed to the Roman socialite Clodia by the lawyer Cicero in his speech Pro Caeliohe used it nine times, but then Pro Caelio is the quintessential text of Latin misogyny. Meretrix has that exact force that the more polite translations of words like it just don’t. It is an insult. It is a blot on the language. And part of the business of translation is to translate things with their appropriate force.

But what does it even mean? What did they do to cause the label to be applied to them, even after they were saints, so that through posterity, in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, they would continue to receive the name: whore, meant as an insult?

The story of Thaïs appears to have been written at some time in the fifth century, but is set in 350s, since it features Paphnutius, a real figure active between the 320s and the 350s. Paphnutius visits Thaïs, reputedly the most beautiful of Alexandria’s courtesans, and pretends to buy her for sex. He browbeats her into repenting and publicly humiliating herself; he takes her to a convent where he seals her in a cell with her own effluent and orders her to pray a simple mantra of repentance; three years later he comes back and lets her out.

He tore down the threshold that blocked her in, but she insisted that she remain

imprisoned there, even though the door was open.
“Come out!” he said. “God has forgiven your sins!”
“I bear witness to God,” she said, “because of whom I am in here, that all of my sins appear to me as if on a tray before my eyes, and I can’t stop seeing them.”
“It wasn’t your punishment that removed your sins,” Paphnutius cried, ” but the fact that you always have the guilt of them in your mind.”

– Anon, The Life of Saint Thaïs the Whore. 3

He lets her out and she refuses, until he tells her she has been saved by her own self-loathing, and then she comes out, and, broken, she dies shortly afterwards.  

It’s only a page long. I close my eyes and I see Thaïs kneeling in her own piss and shit, blank-eyed, head-lolling, starved, only kept alive by the mantra she is forced to repeat to such an extent that when the ritual is broken, she dies in two weeks. It’s a legitimate horror. 

While (although she’s still on the calendar, 8th October) authorities think she’s fictional, of all the stories in the Lives of the Fathers, this is the one that could happen, and the one that most captured future imaginations. Anatole France’s novel Thaïs approaches the story critically and was adapted for stage and film. Michele Roberts’s account of her in her novel Impossible Saints is as bleak and brutal as the source material.

The story of Mary dates to about 370. Mary is the niece of a hermit called Abraham, orphaned, who lives with him in his little house in the desert. Mary is pestered into having sex with a nameless monk and is so consumed by guilt at having sex once that she thinks she might as well just go and do it for money, so she runs away and goes to work in a brothel. Abraham goes to get her back and they tearfully reconcile; he forgives her for everything. Saint Mary is also remembered on October 8th.

The account of Pelagia comes from the fifth century, but is again set in the fourth. A bishop sees an actor pass in the street.

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Saint Pelagia

As all of us were admiring his holy teaching, look, all of a sudden the most famous actress of Antioch passed us by, the best of the ballerinas and comediennes. She was riding on a donkey, and she was dressed so ostentatiously that you couldn’t see anything of her beneath all the gold and gems and pearls. Even her feet were covered in gold and pearls. She had a train of boy and girl slaves with her, all dressed in expensive clothes, each with a golden collar, some in front and some behind. No one could ever have enough of her loveliness. She passed by us, and the air was filled with musk, and some of the sweetest fragrances in the whole world.

–Jacob the Deacon, The Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 2

She is specifically what the Romans called a mima. Now in ancient theatre of the respectable kind, the comedies and tragedies, all the actors were men. Female actors did the mimes, the sacred fertility shows, and these were bawdy, and had nudity, and included simulated sex acts. Writers of antiquity tell us that these shows included actual sex acts, and that the women who performed in these shows were sex workers too, but we don’t know if that’s true. This story assumes that being an actor makes her a stripper and a porn star too. The title, added later, just labels her a whore and is done with it.

The actor, Pelagia, converts to Christianity; Satan visit her and tries to get her to recant.

He said, “Why are you doing this to me, Lady Pelagia? Why are you playing the part of my personal Judas?”

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 9

She refuses, and runs away in one of the bishop’s cloaks. Three years later, the narrator asks to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nonnus asks James to send his regards to a hermit who lives nearby called Pelagius.

I found the hermit on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed, in a modest little shack, closed off on all sides, except for a little window in the wall. I banged on the shutter of the little window, and she opened it and at once recognised me, but I didn’t recognise her. How could I have possibly recognised her since when I saw her before she was indescribably beautiful, and now her face had wasted away from her starving herself? Her eyes looked like ditches in her face.

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 14

It is of course Pelagia. Shortly after she dies. When it’s discovered that the miracle-worker was in fact a young woman, the assembled people marvel, and the moral is that she’s saved because she became a man. Her day, again, is October 8th.

Mary of Egypt’s story, written by Sophronius, probably in the 630s but is again set some time in the late fifth century. Zosimas of Palestine, supposedly the world’s best monk, meets a naked old woman in the desert, who, although reluctant initially to speak, tells her story.

Her skin was completely black, all tanned by the heat of the sun, and the hair on her head was white like the clouds, and short, and like wool. And it fell no farther than the nape of her neck.

-Sophronius, Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 7

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Mary of Egypt. Jose de Ribera

She says she’s from Egypt. She was promiscuous from a young age. That’s it. She slept with anyone who asked.

I took nothing from anyone for it; now that I was mad with passion… I fulfilled my sexual needs for free. I was evil! And don’t think I took nothing because I was rich – no, I lived by begging, and sometimes working as a weaver.

-Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 13

So in fact, she was explicitly not a sex worker. She just liked sex.

She one day decided, she says, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and worked her way across by sleeping with all the men on the boat. At Jerusalem, she found herself barred from the temple by an invisible wall. She prayed for forgiveness and a vision of the Virgin Mary told her to go to the desert. She bought three loaves of bread and retreated into the desert. The bread miraculously kept her going for fifteen years.

Illiterate, she now knows the Bible by heart. She levitates, walks across rivers. Zosimas visits her a couple more times and on the second time finds her dead. An angelic lion appears and writes her name on the ground: Mary of Egypt. The lion buries her.

The Orthodox church in particular honours Mary of Egypt in the week before Easter. They say the moral of her story is that even the greatest of sinners can become miracle workers.

But what was her sin, exactly? She liked sex. She slept around. In the society I live in, it is no big deal. But back then, that made her the worst. It earned her the label, whore.

And in all of these stories, all of which are supposed to be about redemption, the slur sticks in the title (and I don’t think it’s an accident that the three of them share a feast day). In the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t remembered as a byword for the redemptive power of Christmas, these four women get “whore” attached on the top line of the permanent record. It never goes away.

Howard David Ingham is a writer, poet and artist. He has an MPhil in Late Latin Literature and once got hired by the British Government to do something secret. He writes regularly at Chariot. His book, The Age of Miracles is still funding on Kickstarter.

Art is the Best Revenge: Painting Justice with Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait, 1638-9.

Centuries before feminism had a name, post-Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) made waves with exemplary work in a male-dominated medium. Raped at seventeen, she channeled her trauma into her art, raising questions about the mistreatment of women with paintings of staggering beauty and brutality. Of fifty-seven known paintings, forty-nine feature female heroines from history and mythology in positions of strength, many of them also survivors of sexual assault.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was an established artist who taught her to paint while she was growing up. By the age of sixteen, she already showed great promise, but was rejected by more formal academies. Wanting to nurture his daughter’s talent, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to be tutored by a friend of his, artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644).

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Susanna and the Elders. AG, 1610.

Perhaps the first hint that Tassi was not exactly a gentleman can be found in Susanna and the Elders (1610). The Biblical Susanna was a virtuous young woman who was sexually harassed by some of the older men in her community. While many male artists had depicted Susanna as compliant or even flirtatious, Artemisia’s heroine is anything but: she is disgusted and exposed, shielding herself from two men almost falling over each other to leer at her.

By 1612, Orazio had taken Tassi to court for raping his daughter. Artemisia testified he had forced himself on her, and she had fought him so savagely that she removed a chunk of flesh from his penis. After the rape, Tassi pressured her into having an ongoing sexual relationship with him with the promise he would eventually marry her. Tassi was already married and could fulfill no such promise, but continued to abuse Artemisia until her father brought charges against him.

It wasn’t Tassi’s first run-in with the law. He had already been tried for rape, incest, and the attempted murder of his wife. Artemisia, his latest victim, was a well-behaved young woman of eighteen. So what happened?

They tortured her.

Although Tassi’s defense was contradictory and blatantly false, the court didn’t believe Artemisia’s claim that he had raped her. She was subjected to a humiliating physical exam in front of the court to prove she was no longer a virgin, her character was questioned, she was accused of promiscuity, and then she was tortured with thumbscrews while her rapist watched. Over months of witness testimonies and torture, Artemisia never once changed her story and Tassi was eventually convicted. He chose banishment from Rome over imprisonment, but he was back within a few months. By now it was common knowledge that he was a real piece of work, but he had friends in high places: Pope Innocent X was a big fan of his landscapes.

Tassi may have escaped justice through the courts, but Artemisia wasn’t done with him. Now a far superior artist to her one-time tutor, she took her revenge in a series of masterful paintings depicting women equal to or dominating men. At least half a dozen show women physically assaulting men, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes:

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612, and again in 1620): As the story goes, Judith was a Jewish widow. When her town was attacked by Assyrian general Holofernes, she took advantage of his attraction to her by going to his tent with him and then decapitating him as he was passed out drunk. This story has been interpreted by several notable artists including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Kilmt in the twentieth century, but Artemisia’s is undoubtedly the most graphic. It was owned by the Medicis, but hidden for years as it was considered too brutal to display. Two versions of this were painted, the first just after Tassi’s trial.

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Caravaggio’s Judith (left) and Gentileschi’s Judith (right)

This painting is a clear tribute to Caravaggio’s work of the same name, but Artemisia takes it further. Artemisia’s Judith is more mature and self-assured. While Caravaggio’s Judith hesitantly beheads her attacker with a look of distaste on her face, Artemisia’s Judith is all business. She looks almost bored as she hacks off Holofernes’ head as if it’s something she does–or has thought of doing–every day.

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Judith and Her Maidservant (1613-14) : Here we see Judith leaving with her maidservant, sword in hand. Holofernes’ head is in a bag, bottom left. Her hairpin here depicts David, who likewise removed the head of Goliath.

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Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes (1625): In the last of this series, the head is bottom center as Judith and her maid escape into the night.

And then there’s Jael and Sisera (1620):

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Sisera was a Canaanite leader who had ruled over the Israelites for many years. Following his defeat by the Isrealites, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s tent, only to have a tent post hammered into his brain once he fell asleep.

Artemisia painted heroines she could relate to, such as Lucretia, the classical victim of rape, and other famous “fallen women” like Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Lucretia and Cleopatra are shown in the moments prior to suicide: instead of despair, they seem to question the idea that they ought to take their own lives. Surely a woman is worth more than the concept of “honor” attached to her body?

Artemisia seemed to think so. She married another painter and worked as an artist her whole life, fulfilling commissions for the Medicis and England’s Charles I. She was a friend of Galileo, painted a ceiling for Michelangelo’s nephew, and inspired countless other women artists to follow in her footsteps during her lifetime.

As for Tassi, his work has fallen into obscurity and he is now primarily known as Artemisia’s rapist. I wasn’t able to find a portrait of him, but we might be able to guess what he looked like…

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Jessica Cale

Further Reading:

Brash, Larry. Artemisia Gentileschi.

Christiansen, Keith, and Mann, Judith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Sartle. Category: Artemisia Gentileschi