In the early twenty-first century, Americans like to debate whether one should be able to marry a person of the same sex, but in the early eighteenth century, Europeans liked to debate whether a castrated man should be able to marry a woman. This was a practical question given the Italian tradition of castrating boy singers so they could be trained as lifelong sopranos.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 12, 2011.
The marriage debate is exemplified in "Traite des Eunuques," originally published in 1707 by jurist and diplomat Charles Ancillon under the pseudonym C. D'Ollincan. Following his death, it was translated into English by Robert Samber and printed in 1718 for the London bookseller Edmund Curll under the title "Eunuchism Display'd" with the anonymous byline "a Person of Honour." Unlike many books of its time, "Eunuchism Display'd" puts many scandalous sexual terms in plain English rather than disguising them in Latin for the protection of the "fair sex". This is an extremely rare book, with only a handful of copies listed in WorldCat. Fortunately, in 2010 Eunuchism Display'd was digitally scanned and became available to read online free of charge, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Library System and the Internet Archive.
This review is based on the English version of the manuscript. No claim is made that Samber's translated text, which is rather sensationalized, is faithful to Ancillon's original intent.
Eunuchism Display'd insists that eunuchs – men who are demonstrably and irrevocably infertile due to castration – should be forbidden to enter a union that ought to be dedicated to procreation. This argument presumes the question at hand is whether eunuchs could marry women; the possibility that they might marry men is not even suggested. The author claims that his goal is to help women "avoid such unwary Engagements with those, who are absolutely uncapable to answer the End of Marriage, and whose Intentions can only terminate in sordid Interest, downright Money."
Background about castration
The author opens with the attempt "to shew that there really are such Things in Being as Eunuchs," which he defines as "a Person which has not the Faculty or Power of Generation" either by nature or else due to accident or injury. Eunuchs "have a squealing languishing Voice, a Womanish Complection, and a soft Down for a Beard...no Courage or Bravery of Soul, but [are] ever timerous and fearful...entirely effeminate." A muddled list of four types of castration attempts to distinguish between removing the testicles with a knife, destroying them by cutting off the blood flow, and being born with male sex organs that malfunction or are entirely missing. Elsewhere the author acknowledges that castration can also be caused by illness; he frequently uses the word "distemper," a generic term for an infection or other disorder. He frequently returns to the biologically incorrect belief that a man is infertile and incapable of satisfying himself or a partner unless he retains both testes.
The original intent behind deliberate castration, he claims, was to employ male guardians to protect the chastity of noblemen's wives and daughters. His biblical literalist worldview points to the legendary Queen Semiramis's Assyria in 1778 BCE as the first society to castrate royal servants, eventually followed by King Cyrus's Persia in 633 BCE. This "lawful use" was later turned into the "abuse" and "Criminal Ends" of having the eunuchs themselves serve as sexual objects for men; he refers specifically to the first-century Roman emperor Nero's decision to forcibly change the sex of the boy Sporus.
Many Roman emperors disapproved of eunuchs. In the first and second centuries, Domitian and Adrian altogether forbade castration. In the third century, Alexander Severus reduced the number of palace eunuchs and gave away some of the retirees to his friends, permitting his friends to kill these extras if they were displeased with them. At the end of the fourth century, he says the military general Gainas revolted and demanded that Emperor Arcadius send him the head of the eunuch consul Eutropius. By the fifth century, in the Byzantine empire, Leo considered one who castrated another man "as one that made a false or counterfeit Deed." The law considered the act to be "abominable, and the Eunuch himself as a Monster, and therefore never granted and allowed Eunuchs the Rights and Privileges as other Men had. For Example, they were not permitted to make a Will." In the sixth century, Justinian made castration a crime equivalent to murder. (According to the author, this was because the risk of death was so high.)
In the chapter "What Notion the People had of Eunuchs," the author tries to focus on how the majority of people perceived castration. Even apart from associations with tyrannical palace eunuchs, he writes that people "not only utterly despised and hated [castrated men], but that they could not abide so much as to see them." He says anyone would "give the first Stroke to cut them down, or pluck them up by the Roots, to abolish for ever this abominable Practice out of the World; these are imperfect Creatures, in a Word, Monsters, to whom Nature indeed has been sparing of nothing but the Avarice, Luxury, or Malice of Men, have disfigured and deformed." Therefore, "if the Name [Eunuch] at first past for a Title of Honour, it grew at last to be very injurious; and one could not more sensibly affront a Man than by calling him Eunuch."
Referring to the Roman poet Juvenal's slur of "half Man" and the complaint of "dry Tree" reported by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, the author gleefully says, "I shall add two Strokes more...A Eunuch is a Person always sickly and languishing Morbosus [Latin for "diseased"]...who sees himself in the Occasion of Action and cannot."
He acknowledges some fanatical early Christians who elected self-castration: Origen (initially praised by the Bishop of Alexandria but later excommunicated), the followers of Valesius, and Constantius's high chamberlain Eusebius who was a leader of the so-called Arian heresy. He also, of course, is aware of the contemporary Italian singers. Despite all this, he concludes that "the Christian Church abhors and detests that abominable Practice." He quotes a hagiographer who called eunuchs spiritually as well as physically barren, as well as St. Gregory Nazianzen who said the words "impious" and "eunuch" were synonymous.
Positive counterexamples of eunuchs, such as Daniel in the Bible, are dismissed with a wave of the hand: "their Number has been always very small, and not sufficient to counterballance the general Opinion of Mankind."
Where influential men such as Numa Pompilius and Socrates may have spoken well of eunuchs, they were, according to Ammianus Mercellinus, disregarded. The author insists that "the World" ridicules manifestos such as the defense of eunuchs written by Constantine's precept. He portrays court eunuchs as dressed-up monkeys who were seen as "no better than Slaves" and compares Arcadius's selection of a eunuch as Roman consul to Caligula's choice of a horse for the same position several centuries earlier.
Considering the "extremely beautiful" Bagoas who belonged to Darius of Persia and then to Alexander the Great, he reminds us that Bagoas condemned an innocent man. He acknowledges the eunuch general Narses who conquered the Barbarians and Goths and drove out the Lombards, and also calls out the generals Sulla and Cotta, yet still argues that eunuchs should be forbidden to carry weapons. With respect to the last two, he asks: "because there happened to be two great Men that were eunuchs, by a very particular Exception to that Rule, must it be therefore made a Law, that all others are capable of bearing Arms?"
Sometimes he does not seem to notice that his specific examples challenge or invalidate his general claims. He mentions the biblical story of St. Philip's baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch. He says that Ulpian's law considered the loss of a finger or toe to be a handicap, but not the loss of the testicles. Eunuchs were esteemed under the third- and fourth-century emperors Constantius, Constantine, and Theodosius the Younger. Closer to the author's time, in Turkey, eunuchs held "the highest Posts of Honour in the State," and the two pashas most well-reputed in war were eunuchs. One of them, the mid-sixteenth-century Hali, "was a Person of much Wit and Humour, and had nothing of the Sourness and Moroseness of Temper, so common to the generality of Eunuchs."
He has a certain respect for the Italian castrati, than whom "there can be no finer Voices in the World" and who are "above Description." Before the age of twenty, Pauluccio "was indeed the Wonder of the World." Nevertheless, he says, well-paid Italian castrati have "a Vanity which is ever peculiar to Eunuchs" and mistakenly believed that their feminine "Conquests" were really "in Love" with them, but in the author's opinion "our Ladies have not so little natural Philosophy...to be satisfied with meer Shadow and Out-Side." Furthermore, eunuchs are only conditionally loved, since "nothing in Italy is so contemptible as a Eunuch that cannot sing." He notes the Church's self-contradiction in encouraging sacred music sung by eunuchs while excommunicating those who castrate boys.
He eventually reduces the scope of his claim to say that it was mainly the Romans who disdained eunuchs, then proceeds to undo the argument of the first half of his book. Eunuchism, he says, "is not equally opprobrious in all Places...They have been employed in the highest Offices, and have received Honours not inferiour to Sovereign Princes; and even to this Day are held in the same Respect in the Levant, Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia; and it is notorious, that in the Port of the Grand Seignior...Eunuchs possess an Authority little less than Sovereign."
Should eunuchs marry?
It is not clear whether the author's concerns about marriage are primarily based in the religious or civil sphere. Ancillon schooled in French law, and the text acknowledges a difference between religious and civil law, but the author treats these as two separate bodies of law governing a single thing called marriage, and he struggles to define what that is. Consenting to marry, having a public ceremony, living together, having sex – none of this, he muses, constitutes marriage itself.
He is, however, certain in his opposition to marriage and adoption rights for eunuchs. He bases his opinion on existing prohibitions such as those in ancient Roman and contemporary French law, a papal bull from Sixtus Quintus that voided eunuchs' marriages and an equivalent Protestant prohibition. Emperor Leo's 98th Constitution set penalties for priests who officiated at eunuchs' weddings and said their wedding guests would suffer the same penalty as rapists or adulterers. He notes an anomaly where the Italian government made a one-time exception when it declined to invalidate a eunuch's marriage to a woman who had her father's consent.
His second reason for opposing eunuch marriage is a deliciously circular argument: While Potiphar is the first eunuch mentioned in the Bible, the fact that Potiphar had a wife and daughter entails that Potiphar wasn't really castrated and was called "eunuch" only because he held a position traditionally filled by castrated men. Similarly, Dydimus "had a Wife; however we see he was not considered a married Man, because he was an Eunuch." Furthermore, he claims that "Eunuchs according to the Prophet Isaiah are only dry Trees," when this is manifestly the opposite of what Isaiah said in that passage. Isaiah says God promises eunuchs "a name better than sons and daughters...an everlasting name that will not be cut off."
He acknowledges that Emperor Leo restored eunuchs' right to adopt children. Leo had argued that adoption by infertile people is merely a compensatory strategy for a handicap, analogous to deaf people signing with their hands. The author rebuts this by insisting that since an adoptive father must be older than his son to resemble the natural order, the father must also be a fertile male. Furthermore, he complains, how can a "timorous and fearful" eunuch be a role model to a boy?
Marriage was invented, he says, by God for Adam and Eve with the sole purpose of procreation, and it was lustful marriages that prompted God to destroy the world in a flood. Thus "Eunuchism and Marriage are two Things incompatible and essentially opposite." If a eunuch is able to satisfy a woman, it is no doubt by sexual practices forbidden even to married men and women. In his opinion: "The lawful Desires of a Woman are to have Children."
He admits that his argument about procreation could be used to prevent elderly people from marrying. Initially he denies this "absurd" implication, but his actual position is more nuanced. He thinks that a man who has become infertile with advanced age should not be permitted to marry a woman in her childbearing years; however, he should be permitted to marry an elderly woman so that they may care for each other. (He doesn't say whether a eunuch may be permitted to marry an infertile woman to care for her. However, he denies that any woman truly wants to be in a celibate marriage, since without sex, "this is no Marriage, but a Union, (if I may so call it) of support, which can only be Burthensome to the Woman".) He provides the strange, unscientific explanation that elderly people who have grown infertile over the years still retain a stifled "Faculty of Generation," so as potentially fertile beings they must be given the benefit of the doubt, but men who have been castrated by illness or injury have had their generative faculty irrevocably annihilated. He also makes the unverifiable theological claim that God sometimes bestows fertility miracles on elderly people but never on eunuchs: "Persons advanc'd in Years may be made use of as Instruments to shew God's Power, but Eunuchs never can."
The author describes marriage as "a Kind of Bargain and Sale" wherein husband and wife acquire rights to each other's bodies. He assumes that a proposing eunuch "conceals his Impotency." These grooms "are Cheats, and as such ought to be punish'd...they are guilty of a notorious Act of Falshood, for they put on the Appearance of Men, when they are not so in Reality." Even when a eunuch is honest in private to his fiancee, his marriage is a public fiction that "make[s] a Semblance to the World as if they could really perform what is required in that State." The bride is cheated regardless of whether the eunuch is literally trying to steal her inheritance or merely writhing in his inability to satisfy the sexual urges of himself and his wife. Upon marrying him, she will "so make the Marriage, of which she can have no Use, a Veil and Cover for her own vicious Practices." The marriage therefore is a "mock and abuse" of religion.
He concludes his argument by saying that eunuch marriage is strictly forbidden, but he adds the undermining qualification that "it is impossible to make a certain and universal System of Law or Divinity upon the Marriage of Eunuchs."
The book makes recurring contradictory references to the presumed sexual desires of women. The author believes that a woman desires something that a eunuch cannot give her, so if she shares his bed, she will "languish and pine away" and "die a lingring Death." Although she may want to declare lifelong faithfulness to a castrated man, she cannot be expected to know herself well enough to stick to her vows. No priest should allow her to "put her self in evident Danger of committing Sin" in an extramarital liaison when she finally tires of the marriage. The second, contradictory theme is that a woman can indeed enjoy sex with a eunuch but it is illicit because it is non-procreative: "an Eunuch can only satisfy the Desires of the Flesh." The marriage should be forbidden if it affords her sexual pleasure without the risk of pregnancy.
If a husband is discovered to be impotent or infertile, his wife should gladly separate from him to prove she isn't lewd. (That is, she oughtn't be eager to endure the sexual attentions of a man, even her own husband, for reasons other than procreation.) If she does not voluntarily separate, "it is my Opinion she shall be forc'd to separate". Late in the book he clarifies that he's not talking about lifelong marriages where the husband gradually becomes infertile, but only to new marriages where the would-be husband is obviously – "notoriously" – a eunuch.
The message about eunuchs' sexual preferences and activities is unclear. The author says a eunuch destroys a woman to satisfy his "wicked Passion" although sex makes him feel "the utmost Chagrin and Affliction, because of his wretched Incapacity." Early in the book, the author quotes St. Basil at the time of the Arian heresy referring to eunuchs as "jealous," "suspicious," and tormented by lust. Later in the book, he offers the contradictory stereotype that eunuchs "are never Jealous" and would easily give their wives permission to have affairs (after all, the eunuch Dydimus actively prostituted his wife).
Why read this book?
The book's moral message is poorly argued. The intended structure was to devote the first half of the book to providing general background on eunuchs and their social position, another quarter to delivering the argument on why eunuchs have no right to marry, and the remainder to addressing counterobjections. In its actual execution, the text meanders, spills beyond its scope, contains many redundancies, and hastily dismisses counterobjections. The author also makes the unpersuasive moral assumption that "what is" is of course "what ought to be," i.e. that anti-eunuch stereotypes and discrimination have a reasonable basis and should be perpetuated. He favors Catholic perspectives and takes it to be obvious that ancient Roman laws and social mores should apply to eighteenth-century France.
While the book contains an impressive, cited catalogue of actual European eunuchs interspersed with diverting European folktales about unfortunate men, it is ultimately limited in its cultural scope. The review of Persia is wanting. There are virtually no specific examples from the Ottoman empire and no description of the government, social structure, culture, or religion of Constantinople. Anticipated words like "Mohammedan" or "seraglio" appear nowhere in the manuscript. An even more glaring omission is the nation of China with its hundreds of thousands of castrated palace servants. Perhaps this information was unavailable to the author in French or Latin; had he been aware, he would certainly have mentioned the word "China" somewhere in his book. With the possible exception of one sentence about a mysterious "Kingdom of Boulan," the slave trade in Africa is also omitted, and with it, the observation that many eunuchs were forbidden from marrying not primarily because of their castration but because they were slaves.
This book gives a vivid impression of what one Renaissance legal scholar thought about the character and sexual morality of contemporary European eunuchs. Many of his prejudices are expressed with irrational and circular claims. Once that scope is understood, the book can be enjoyed for its useful references and for its color.