Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris

Cabaret_de_l'Enfer_and_cabaret_le_Ciel

The Cabaret du Ciel (left) beside the Cabaret de l’Enfer (right) on the Boulevard de Clichy

Every generation likes to think they’re the first to invent counterculture, but today’s goths and Murderinos are part of a tradition of gleeful creepiness that goes back centuries. We’ll be looking into more of this in future posts, but tonight we’re going to start in Montmartre.

In Bohemian Paris of Today (1899), William Chambers Morrow describes Montmartre as “that strange Bohemian mountain with its eccentric, fantastic, and morbid attractions,” and that’s a good start. It was home of the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the famous stairs of the Rue Foyatier, and the Sacré-Coeur. Now one of the most recognizable parts of Paris, Montmartre was (and continued to be) the red light district, inhabited by countless sex workers as well as some of the most influential writers, musicians, and artists of the late nineteenth century.

So much of Western art and literature can be traced back to Montmartre in the 1890s that it’s really worth of a blog of its own. We already looked at Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the famous figures who appeared in his art, so today we’re looking a bit closer at some of Montmartre’s hottest nightspots–the magnificently goth heaven and hell nightclubs the Cabaret du Ciel, l’Enfer, and the Cabaret du Néant.

neant postcardCabaret du Néant

At the Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), the morbid nihilism sweeping fin de siècle Paris found its natural home. If you were thirsty after a long day of morgue tourism*, you could pull up a bench at a coffin of your own in their Salle d’Intoxication, a bar decorated with human bones.

Every aspect of the décor had been chosen to make an impact. The entrance was draped in heavy black curtains with white details, the same ones that hung in the houses of the dead around the city. Even the iron lanterns gave off a sickly green light, giving anyone who passed beneath them the pallor of a corpse. The drinks themselves were named after poisons and diseases and served in cups shaped like skulls**, and the waiters dressed as monks and pallbearers.

After a glass of “spitting tuberculosis”, you could proceed into the adjoining room for entertainment of another kind. With the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, the bar used light and a series of carefully angled mirrors to create some very alarming effects. While Pepper’s Ghost is great at simulating apparitions, Néant took it a bit further. Seated on coffins, the guests would watch as a young woman wrapped in a shroud appeared to fully decompose into a skeleton then slowly come back to life. How they managed it, we can only guess, but they did recreate the experience for their guests; anyone could pass through the coffin, decompose, and be brought back to life in Néant’s “Cave of the Dead.”

neant chandelier

Néant’s chandelier

First established in Paris on the Boulevard Rochechouart as the Cabaret de la Mort (Cabaret of Death) in 1892, it relocated to the Boulevard de Clichy and took the name Néant, because apparently it was the name frightening the residents and not the chandeliers. (right)

In spite of the grim theme, contemplation of one’s own mortality was not the aim—or it didn’t stop there, at least. Néant was above all else a place to hook up. Whether sipping “Asiatic cholera” in the Salle d’Intoxication or taking in a show in the “Cave of Gay Ghosts” or “Cave of Sad Specters,” guests were known to engage in a fair bit of PDA. Secret Montmartre explains it thus:

“It is a constant of eroticism to be bound to the ephemeral and to death. (…) The show does not discourage the libido of spectators who do not forget that in Pigalle, sex has the last word. We kiss each other, we caress each other under the empty gaze of the skeletons.”

Cabaret du Ciel

After passing through the coffin and being dramatically reanimated at Néant, you could stagger a bit farther down the Boulevard de Clichy to the Cabaret du Ciel (Cabaret of Heaven, “the sky”) or l’Enfer (Hell) just beside it. If you’d been good—or didn’t mind a fairly blasphemous drinking session—you might make it up the stairs to le Ciel, where you would be greeted by angels, priests, and St. Peter dripping holy water on you from above.***

Cabaret_du_Ciel_promo_photo

Angels surround the Golden Porcus. That’s not weird.

If the nearly naked angels cavorting to harp music wasn’t enough to keep you entertained, you could listen to their naughty confessions or watch them perform scenes from Dante’s Inferno. It must have been quite a scene–some of them were also dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

Bizarrely, le Ciel also had a massive golden pig (“the Golden Porcus”) that was worshiped like a deity, decorated in flowers, and surrounded by candles. (right)

Like Néant, le Ciel had their own names for common drinks. Morrow describes his experience:

“Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!” growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew.

Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel’s assault visibly disconcerted him,–he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

“Two sparkling draughts of heaven’s own brew and one star-dazzler!” yelled our angel.

“Thy will be done,” came the response from the hidden bar.

Throughout the night, they would invite guests to become “angels” and suspend them on wires from the ceiling, allowing them to fly above the other patrons until Father Time appeared with his scythe to collect tips and send them on their way to l’Enfer.

enfer

Cabaret de l’Enfer

As over the top as Néant and le Ciel must have seemed, l’Enfer was another story altogether. Just downstairs from le Ciel, it couldn’t have been more different:

“We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. (…) Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. (…) Near us was suspended a cauldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

the cauldron at lenfer

A cauldron at l’Enfer. Note the devils lighting the fire beneath it. You can see the walls and ceilings were covered in sculptures of the damned.

“Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns.

“Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: ‘Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!’”

The glasses glowed with “phosphorescent light,” and dapper man dressed as the devil would make the rounds and tell the guests which of their sins had led them to eternal damnation. From there, you could go to “the hot room,” where a contortionist would change from snake to devil and back again. Morrow writes that he was disappointed to find that although the walls appeared to be half melted, the hot room was disagreeably chilly.

Antonin_Alexander

Antonin Alexander, professor turned devil, owner of literally the hottest club in Paris. Dapper AF.

If it seems like these clubs go together a little too well, it might not surprise you to hear that le Ciel and l’Enfer were owned by the same man, former literature professor Antonin Alexander. Alexander himself appeared as the devil in l’Enfer. (right)

After Néant was moved to the Boulevard de Clichy in 1892, le Ciel and l’Enfer joined it in 1896. Jules Claretie, then director of the Théâtre Français, viewed the clubs as essential to understanding Belle Epoque Paris and described them as “Putting Dante’s poem within walking distance.”

Even after its heyday at the turn of the century, l’Enfer continued to be a place of interest. André Breton’s Surrealists met above it in the 1920s. Eerily enough, serial killer Guy Georges was caught at the site in 1998 and confessed inside the same building where a costumed devil once confronted visitors with lists of their sins.

In case you’re curious, le Ciel and l’Enfer were at 53 Boulevard de Clichy, and Néant was at number 34. Today, 53 is a Monoprix, and 34 is a “fully naturist swinger sauna.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bohemian Paris of To-Day by William Chambers Morrow and Édouard Cucuel (1899)

*Yes, really. 
**You thought you were so original.
***I really hope it’s holy water.

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Sex and the Asylum: Imprisoning Inconvenient Women

f95ddecebd8d712ca785b34b065d7231Nymphomania, masturbation, sexual derangement: just some of the reasons a nineteenth century—and indeed twentieth century—woman could find herself locked away in a lunatic asylum. In fact, many of the reasons women were incarcerated were related to their sex or sexuality. Around one third of female patients were diagnosed with nymphomania. Some had born illegitimate children, been engaged in prostitution, or been raped or sexually assaulted.

For others, being deemed promiscuous or flirtatious was enough to seal their fate. In both Great Britain and the United States, it was perfectly legal for a husband or father to have their wives or daughters committed to an asylum without any right of appeal. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, induced vomiting, leeches, straitjackets, and, in some cases clitorectomies.

In 1867, seventeen-year-old Alice Christina Abbot was accused of poisoning her stepfather after he threatened to send her to a reform school. At her trial, Abbot claimed that her stepfather had put her through years of sexual abuse, and that she had told other people, but they had mostly considered her mentally deranged. The court rejected her allegations as singular, and in August of that year she was committed to Taunton Insane Asylum, where she seems to have vanished into the dark realms of history. Whether or not Abbot really was a murderer, or whether she saw poisoning as the only way of freeing herself from her stepfather, we shall never know. The fact remains that she was treated neither as a victim of sexual abuse, nor a sane woman who had committed murder. Instead, she was labelled as insane, and her identity was effectively erased.

Edna Martin was fifteen when her grandfather saw her going to the pictures with a sixty-two-year-old married man. He called the police, and Edna was taken to juvenile court. The judge asked her whether they’d had intercourse, but she had no idea what that meant. Her grandfather said he never wanted to see her again, so she was taken to Parkside Approved School, where she was diagnosed as an imbecile, mentally defective, and feeble-minded, and transferred to Calderstones Asylum. Edna described twenty years of hell moving between various asylums:

They kicked the chamber pots into you . . . they also kicked in your food on a tin plate and you had to eat it off the floor. They used enemas for punishment . . . they thought nothing of giving you a cold-water bath, or they’d get a wet bath towel, put it under a cold tap, twist it, and hit you with it.

In the wider community, asylums were used as tools to control large numbers of women who were considered a threat to the status quo. Prostitution was seen as a social disease, and those fallen women associated with it needed to be shut away for the greater good, until such time as they were fixed. Correcting women who had taken the wrong path was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and lock hospitals.

Magdalen-asylum

A Magdalene Asylum in Ireland, early 20th century

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for sex workers, as well as other women who had deviated from sexual norms, for the sake of penitence and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

In London, any sex worker found to have a venereal disease could be forcibly put in a lock hospital for up to a year, while benevolent societies gave the women huge amounts of religious instruction, and then retained them as seamstresses and servants.

Many lesbian women were also labelled as mentally ill, with doctors claiming that life without continued male interaction could cause anemia, irritability, and tiredness. Women who had chosen alternative lifestyles and defied accepted gender norms were considered a threat to the patriarchal society. In asylums—supposedly places of safety— they could face sexual abuse under the care of doctors, who believed that repeated sexual activity with men could cure them.

This put women in an incredibly vulnerable position: those who refused to obey their husbands or fathers, behaved in a manner which was deemed immodest or unwomanly, or refused to submit to their husbands’ demands faced being torn away from their children and families, and were often subjected to the most brutal conditions.

Asylums became a convenient place to put society’s inconvenient women. These stories are more than just reminders that we’re lucky not to have been born two hundred years ago—they are also reminders of how much people in the past were entrenched in ideas of feminine norms, and the lengths they would go to in order to preserve patriarchal dominance.

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Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham—a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son. Emma left school at sixteen and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, will be published in 2018, also by Crooked Cat Books. It was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.

Follow Emma Rose Millar on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads. Her new book, Delirium, is out now.

Drop Dead Gorgeous: 19th Century Beauty Tips for the Aspiring Consumptive

swoonPicture the ideal nineteenth century English beauty: pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She’s waspishly thin with elegant collarbones. Perhaps she’s prone to fainting.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine; numerous depictions survive to this day, and the image is still held up as the gold standard for Caucasian women. At this point, it’s so embedded in the Western psyche as beauty that it doesn’t occur to us to question it. Of course that’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t it be?

By the nineteenth century, beauty standards in Britain had come a long way from the plucked hairlines of the late Middle Ages and the heavy ceruse of the Stuart period. Fashionable women wanted slimmer figures because physical fragility had become associated with intelligence and refinement. Flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and red lips had always been popular, particularly among sex workers (they suggested arousal), and women had been using cosmetics like belladonna, carmine, and Spanish leather for years to produce those effects when they didn’t occur organically.

Bright eyes, flushed cheeks, and red lips were also signs of tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis—known at the time as consumption, phthisis, hectic fever, and graveyard cough—was an epidemic that affected all classes and genders without prejudice. Today, an estimated 1.9 billion people are infected with it, and it causes about two million deaths each year. At the time, it was mainly associated with respectable women (although there are no few depictions of sex workers dying of it*) and thought to be triggered by mental exertion or too much dancing.** Attractive women were viewed as more susceptible to it because tuberculosis enhanced their best features. It was noted to cause pale skin, silky hair, weight loss, and a feverish tinge to the face (along with less desirable symptoms including weakness, coughing up blood, GI upset, and organ failure), and it was treated with little to no effect with bleeding, diet, red wine, and opium.

Although having an active (rather than latent) case of consumption was all but a death sentence, it didn’t inspire the revulsion of other less attractive diseases until the end of the 19th century when its causes were better understood.

In 1833, The London Medical and Surgical Journal described it in almost affectionate terms: “Consumption, neither effacing the lines of personal beauty, nor damaging the intellectual functions, tends to exalt the moral habits, and develop the amiable qualities of the patient.”

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John Keats. Joseph Severn, 1819.

Of course it didn’t only affect women. The notion that it was caused by mental exertion—along with the high number of artists and intellectuals who lost their lives to it—also led to its association with poets. John Keats died of it at 26. His friend Percy Shelley—also infected—wrote tributes to Keats that attempted to explain consumption not as a disease, but as death by passion. Bizarrely, a symptom that is unique to consumption is spes phthisica, a euphoric state that can result in intense bursts of creativity.*** Keats’ prolific final year of life has been attributed to his consumption, and spes phthisica was viewed by some as necessary for artistic genius.

As Alexandre Dumas (fils) wrote in 1852: “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty.”

Because of its association with young women and poets, the disease itself came to represent beauty, romantic passion, and hyper sexuality. As far as illnesses went, it was considered to be rather glamorous, and in a culture half in love with death, it inspired its fair share of tributes. There are numerous romantic depictions of young women wasting away in death beds at the height of their beauty. Women with consumption were regularly praised for the ethereal loveliness that came from being exceptionally thin and nearly transparent.

Picture that ideal nineteenth century beauty again: that complexion is almost a pallor, and you can see her veins through it. Those lips, eyes, and cheeks are all indicative of a constant low-grade fever. Her teeth are so white they’re almost as translucent as her skin. And her figure? She’s emaciated due to the illness and the chronic diarrhea that comes with it. If she faints, it’s more to do with the lack of oxygen in her blood than the tension of her corset. The sicker she gets, the more beautiful she becomes, until she’s gone; the beauty is all the more poignant because of its impermanence. This beauty can’t last, and it’s as deadly as it is contagious.

Only a fool would wish for it, so what’s a healthy girl to do?

If you didn’t have consumption but wanted the look, there were two things you could do: wait (at its peak between 1780 and 1850, it is estimated to have caused a quarter of all deaths in Europe. Statistically, you would have had a fair chance of getting it), or fake it. Corsets could be made to narrow the waist and encourage a stooped posture, and necklines were designed to show off prominent collar bones. As for the rest, people could try:

Arsenic Complexion WafersAHB2009q11701

Although arsenic was known to be toxic, it was used throughout the nineteenth century in everything from dye to medication. Eating small amounts of arsenic regularly was said to produce a clear, ghostly pale complexion. Lola Montez reported that some women in Bohemia frequently drank the water from arsenic springs to whiten their skin.

Stop Eating

In The Ugly-Girl Papers, S.D. Powers offers her own advice for achieving consumptive skin: “The fairest skins belong to people in the earliest stages of consumption, or those of a scrofulous nature. This miraculous clearness and brilliance is due to the constant purgation which wastes the consumptive, or to the issue which relieves the system of impurities by one outlet. We must secure purity of the blood by less exhaustive methods. The diet should be regulated according to the habit of the person. If stout, she should eat as little as will satisfy her appetite.”

How little? Writing in the third person, she uses herself as an example: “Breakfast was usually a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak of soup, and took it.”

Olive-Tar

For “fair and innocent” skin that mimics the effects of consumption, The Ugly-Girl Papers offers the following recipe: “Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive oil or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft old cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s. The French have long used turpentine to efface the marks of age, but olive-tar is pleasanter.”

White Lead

800px-Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

Madame X. John Singer Sargent, 1883-4

Lead had been used as the primary ingredient for ceruse and other forms of foundation and powder for centuries. It was known to cause skin problems over time (and, you know, lead poisoning). In the nineteenth century, it was still used for the same purpose and appeared in paints and skin enamels in Europe and the United States.

Lavender Powder

If the pallor of consumption didn’t occur naturally or with the aid of arsenic, it could be imitated with the use of lavender colored powder. Usually applied over ceruse or other foundation made from white lead, it gave the skin a bluish, porcelain shade. Perhaps the best known example of this is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. The model, Virginie Gautreau, was known to use lavender powder to create her dramatically pale complexion. She was said to be a master of drawing fake veins on with indigo, and she painted her ears with rouge to add to the illusion of translucence.

Rouge

Commonly sold and sometimes made at home, rouge was everywhere. Made from toxic bismuth or vermilion, or carmine from cochineal beetles, it was applied to cheeks, lips, ears, and sometimes even nostrils to make them appear transparent. It came in liquid, cream, and powder forms, and Napoleon’s Empress Josephine is said to have spent a fortune on it. The Ugly-Girl Papers offers this recipe for Milk of Roses, which sounds rather nice:

“(Mix) four ounces of oil of almonds, forty drops of oil of tarter, and half a pint of rose-water with carmine to the proper shade. This is very soothing to the skin. Different tinges may be given to the rouge by adding a few flakes of indigo for the deep black-rose crimson, or mixing a little pale yellow with less carmine for the soft Greuze tints.”

Ammonia

The Ugly-Girl Papers recommends ammonia for use as both a hair rinse and, worryingly, a depilatory. For healthy hair, Powers recommends scrubbing it nightly with a brush in a basin of water with three tablespoons of ammonia added. Hair should then be combed and left to air dry without a night cap.

Lemon Juice and Eyeliner

To achieve the ideal feverish “sparkling eyes,” some women still used belladonna (which could cause blindness) while others resorted to putting lemon juice or other irritants in their eyes to make them water. Eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows could also be defined. Powers advises: “All preparations for darkening the eyebrows, eyelashes, etc., must be put on with a small hair-pencil. The “dirty-finger” effect is not good. A fine line of black round the rim of the eyelid, when properly done, should not be detected, and its effect in softening and enlarging the eyes is well known by all amateur players.”

Jessica Cale

 

 

Sources

Day, Carolyn. Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease. (2017)

Dumas, Alexandre (fils). La Dame Aux Camélias. (1852)

Klebs, Arnold. Tuberculosis: A Treatise by American Authors on its Etiology, Pathology, Frequency, Semeiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention, and Treatment. (1909)

Meier, Allison. How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century. Hyperallergic. January 2nd, 2018.

Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty: or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. (1858)

Morens, David M. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 8, Number 11. November 2002.

Mullin, Emily. How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion. Smithsonian.com, May 10th, 2016.

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics. (2005)

Powers, S. D. The Ugly-Girl Papers, or Hints for the Toilet. (1874)

Zarrelli, Natalie. The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England. Atlas Obscura, December 17th, 2015.

Notes

*Depictions of sex workers dying of tuberculosis: La Traviata, Les Misérables, La Bohème, and now Moulin Rouge, etc. In the 19th century, consumption was portrayed as a kind of romantic redemption for sex workers through the physical sacrifice of the body.

**Although dancing itself wouldn’t have done it, the disease was so contagious that it could be contracted anywhere people would be at close quarters—dancing at balls with multiple partners could have reasonably been high-risk behavior.

***You know what else does that? Tertiary syphilis. How do you know which one you have? If you’re coughing blood, it’s consumption. If your skin is falling off, it’s syphilis. Either way, you’re going to want to call a doctor.

A Secret Gay Brotherhood at the Court of the Sun King

Louis,_Count_of_Vermandois

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.

DSH zante1678pieter-schei-engraver-daniel-stopendaal

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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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.
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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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