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This article examines stories of men who gelded themselves in early modern England. These events, it argues, were shaped and partly motivated by a culture in which castration was seen as both degrading and potentially empowering. Religious precedents such as that of Origen of Alexandria framed self-gelding as a foolhardy activity, but one which nevertheless indicated an impressive degree of mastery over the body and its urges.
Meanwhile, judicial and popular contexts framed castration as a humiliating and emasculating ordeal. Instances of self-gelding in this period are rare but nonetheless illuminating. Relayed in medical texts and popular ball, such actions typically occurred as a response to emotional distress. In particular, men gelded themselves as a means to express feelings of emasculation within heterosexual relationships, and to dramatically renounce their role in the libidinal economy.
Inthe surgeon James Yonge was called to an unusual kind of accident. This in itself was fairly uncommon, and potentially fatal. When Yonge arrived at the scene, he was surprised to discover that the injury was self-inflicted:. Observing Gay castration story coldness and lack of discernible pulse, Yonge concluded that death was imminent.
Nonetheless, they managed to give the patient a glass of sack and a medicine composed of hyacinth, crocus, alkernes, mirabilis and Melissa. Soon he began to recover, and when the surgeons returned the following day they found:. If so, what did he hope to achieve by this extreme variety of self-harm? This article will examine several s of self-gelding in early modern England, from both medical and popular literary texts.
It argues that self-gelding offered individuals in emotional distress a means of expressing their feelings and attempting to gain relief. Moreover, this particular mode of self-harm had a cultural ificance shaped by the history of religious and judicial castration and gelding. Castration in these contexts could be humiliating, terrifying and sometimes empowering. Early modern tales of self-gelding often framed the event as grimly humorous, but they also hinted at a complex psychodrama. To geld oneself was a curiously masochistic response to fears of cuckoldry or conjugal disorder.
At the same time, it was a repudiation of the body and its urges; both an attempt at self-determination and an annihilation of the masculine subject. Amputation of the penis was occasionally carried out in this period for medical reasons, as well as in a few instances as a form of judicial mutilation. However, those who suffered such amputations usually died, and instances of penile amputation on any were exceedingly rare.
The Bible mentions eunuchism in several places, and its most famous statement on the matter seemed positive about the spiritual advantages of castration:. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. Matthew 12, KJV. On the strength of these few lines, several famous religious figures either framed their desire for castration or—in the most extreme cases—decided to geld themselves.
The majority of early modern writings on Origen dismissed his self-castration as a well-intentioned but foolish act, based on a too-literal interpretation of scripture. Origen though in other things too much allegoricall interpreting the words of our Saviour literally, There be Eunuches which have made themselves Eunuches for the kingdome of heaven; Origen I say upon the said words literally interpreted, did geld himselfe. For God at the first creation of man, said, It is not good for man to be alone. In their antipathy to gelding, writers from the English Protestant church followed the example Gay castration story had long been set by Catholic leaders.
Writing on castration in early Christianity, Daniel F. Ryan Giles summarises the tale:. On the road, the devil sends a demon to remind Gerald of his unconfessed state and recommend that he emasculates and kills himself. Gerald severs his genitals and gores himself. When he is dragged to church dead for burial, he comes back to life and says how the real St.
James appealed to the Virgin Mary to save his soul and body. He goes on to complete the pilgrimage and tell his story. The message in all these s was clear. In spite of this, even the fiercest critics of self-castration had to admit that the desire to avoid sin was basically a good thing.
To avoid sexual temptation, Hugh cut out a portion of his arm after it was touched by an attractive woman. Later, it was said, he prayed for assistance in resisting temptation once more. According to different versions of the story, either a deceased prior of the monastery he inhabited, or an angel, came to him in a vision and gelded him.
This mystical operation freed Hugh once and for all from his sinful desires. Indeed, mystical castrations of this sort seemed like the ideal solution to the problem of sexual temptation. It may have been these connotations which allowed some within the Catholic Church to embrace the use of castrato singers in Church music, though boys gelded for this purpose still usually claimed to have met with some accident which caused their emasculation.
Gelding children created adults with a range of unusual characteristics, and this, combined with the foreignness of castrato singers, made them something more like a different species in the public imagination. Despite the agency that accompanied some varieties of religious castration, it remains the case that most non-medical castrations were understood as punitive. The history of judicial castration is well-documented; work on this subject has been undertaken by Martin Irvine and Lila Yawn, among Gay castration story.
Removal of the scrotum, penis or both as punishment was explicitly deed to humiliate and torture the victim, and as such, was generally only included in the executions of particularly notorious criminals and traitors, alongside such practices as disembowelling, quartering and burning. For instance, Murray notes that in the medieval period, castration was one of the most common punishments meted out to men found guilty of committing homosexual acts. When Heloise became pregnant, Abelard sent her to his family in Brittany to give birth, and proposed marriage, which she reluctantly accepted.
Unfortunately, Fulbert interpreted this move as an attempt by Abelard to get rid of Heloise. At length, however, he exploited his castrate status to depict himself as intellectually and spiritually superior. This was arguably the closest possible thing to castrating the men twice over, since blinding and gelding were so closely associated.
While public displays of legal violence waned in the early modern period, the association between gelding, punishment and ignominy remained. Infor example, it was suggested that thieves be punished by gelding rather than branding or hanging. The continued humiliation of the castrated man relies in part on the relative difficulty of reinventing oneself in this period.
Gelding in judicial terms was thus firmly a means of humiliation, in which the impulse to disempower the victim was prominent. In this guise it also appeared in extrajudicial contexts, where removal of the penis, testicles or both was often threatened as revenge for sexual misdemeanours.
Here, popular ball picked up the theme of retributive castration where formal justice left off; they almost always represented gelding as an amusing variety of rough justice, in which the victim usually had it coming. His gelding is specified to have taken place at the hands of women. Despite these misfortunes, the miller is firmly painted as the villain of the piece; his castration is symptomatic of his bad character. This, of course, reverses the usual pattern of sexual violence in which lone females might be assumed to be vulnerable to assault.
Ball were not histories; the events described in these songs were not necessarily based on real life, and if they were rooted in fact, they inevitably shaped those facts to make a more engaging narrative. Nonetheless, one can see in these texts the repetition of some key anxieties. In each castration ballad, gender hierarchies are turned upside down, with women overseeing the sexual disempowerment and humiliation of sexually active men. The misrule which is described in each case participates in a tradition of charivari or festive disorder, in which pent-up frustrations are violently released.
As Martin Ingram has Gay castration story, charivaris blended quasi-judicial punishment with festivity and misrule. Crucially, such events both ridiculed and revelled in disruption of the established order:. Central to the symbolism of charivaris were notions of hierarchy, inversion, reversal, rule and misrule, order and disorder—the world turned upside-down. I will argue below that the ambiguities Ingram describes in the charivari were also visible in s of self-castration.
Nonetheless, it also reflects an underlying awareness of the precarity of patriarchal power, the constant need to re-construct masculinity in opposition to the existential threat posed by women and effeminate men. Tales of castration emphasised the humiliation and ignominy associated with male impotency.
Gelding was often a grotesque Gay castration story of the natural order of things, in which women were subordinate to men, subjects to kings and Christians to scripture. Yet, this was not the only note sounded in s of castration. Stories of gelding often emphasised the dangerous nature of male desire.
Castration, they intimated, became necessary when men were unable or unwilling to contain their sexual urges, and acted in socially, spiritually, or personally deleterious ways as a result. Furthermore, among the grotesquery emerged—sometimes at least—the possibility of making agency from emasculation, such that physical impotency might pave the way for spiritual potency.
Against this confused and dynamic backdrop, s of self-castration emerged. It is clear, however, that the life of this young man thereafter cannot have been an easy one. As the ball above demonstrate, gelded men were often the butt of jokes.
Moreover, they were excluded from the rituals of courtship and marriage which structured much of early modern life. What, then, can have induced this young man to expose himself to shame, ridicule and potential social exclusion? In this sentence, Yonge pinpoints a psychodrama which seems to underlie many early modern s of self-gelding. That is, self-gelding is undertaken as an expression of emotional distress, and more specifically as a disavowal of the limited models of manhood available to young males in this period.
This theory is borne out by other s of self-gelding from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This time, not one but two men Gay castration story involved:. We had two in this our City of Norwich which endeavoured to castrate themselves upon the very thoughts of not marrying, mistrusting that if ever they should have any children, they could not maintain them: The first of which had taken out and cut off both his Testicles, but hereby occasioning such a flux of blood as was past his skill to stop, he sendeth for a Chirurgeon of our Town who speedily stops this and heals up the wound, and cures the Patient.
The second not being so couragious, but entering upon his intended operation, could not with such dexterity act his part; but upon undertaking to take the first out, he occasions such a flux of blood as he thought would speedily have rewarded his bold attempt with death. Hence was Gay castration story to send for a Chirurgeon, who after having stopt the flux agglutinated the wound, and the Patient remains in very good health. Despite the danger which accompanied their activities, Browne did not present his patients as suicidal, nor as mentally ill.
This attitude prevailed throughout medical and popular descriptions of men who gelded themselves. Although it was acknowledged that their reactions were extreme, they were explicable; every narrative of self-gelding contains a more or less detailed explanation of the factors which drove the protagonist to act in the way they had.
This pattern of reporting probably owed something to the fact that suicide was a crime. Those who completed suicide, particularly in the first half of the seventeenth century, would have their property seized and their bodies buried outside church grounds. As I discuss below, gelded men were widely believed to be not only infertile but incapable of sustaining an erection.
Thus, one can read this episode as an act of extraordinary self-abnegation in which the pair seek to do away with both sex and sexual desire, freeing themselves from the anguish of experiencing lusts which they cannot responsibly satisfy. Adding to the complexity of the case, the right of gelded men to marry was in this period hotly contested.
Since a primary purpose of marriage was procreation, one might assume that gelded men were excluded from this rite. However, Mary Frandsen and Helen Berry have both written at length about cases in which castrato singers successfully asserted their right to wed. This approach to embodiment is in stark contrast to a monist humoral view in which heats and emotions are experienced as intrinsic to both mind and body, with thoughts affecting physiology and vice versa. This was not a simple case of the flesh versus the spirit, but of mind and body in constant—sometimes fraught—interaction.
That is, self-castrators might be motivated in the first instance by emotional stressors. What were the emotional factors which might set this chain of events in motion? All of these, however, were relatively unusual in focusing on thwarted male desire.
The majority of self-gelders were motivated Gay castration story a different fear—that of illimitable female desire. When men feared that they might be cuckolded, nagged or duped into bringing up illegitimate children, in some instances they turned to violence, not against their wives, but against themselves. As was often the case, this scenario appeared both in popular ball and in medical texts, neither of which told the whole truth about any given incident. A man who suspects his wife of infidelity removes his testicles, and in so doing, hopes to both shame his wife and assure himself of the paternity of any future offspring.
At the end of the ballad, the husband suggests that his wife may get pregnant instead using a special powder which he has procured, which she may drink in a glass of wine. The broader implication of this tale, however, is that self-mutilation may be an effective, if wrong-headed, response to female insubordination. Ironically, he has failed to prevent the outcomes he fears; his wife, under guise of the special powder, may still cheat and become pregnant, and he is still to be counted among the local cuckolds.
The Lamentation might appear comical, but its rhetoric was fairly subdued in comparison to similar tales one could find in medical and scientific texts. Moreover, each text described households in which the ideal patriarchal order had been disturbed, and men no longer had reliable control over their wives. There is little or no clinical or scientific utility to these stories.
Instead, they prioritise a strong narrative. They emphasise the circumstances leading to the event and the personalities of the people involved, and they focus on lurid details such as the blood dripping through the floor. In all, they have a carnivalesque flourish not unlike the ballad tales of marauding maidens described above. Nonetheless, the stories they tell are psychologically complex, presenting self-castration as an issue of power within relationships rather than a matter of mental disorder.
This sense of self gelding as a choice rather than a compulsion is Gay castration story made it possible for medical writers to narrate such events in the language of popular literature, even while the treatment required afterwards justified both their inclusion in medical textbooks and the gruesomely frank language in which the whole process was described. Any psychological explanation—and clearly there is some psychological process at work here—must interpret the baker as having internalized the social system in which his identity is shaped and conferred.Gay castration story
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