castration: sexual violence against men historically entrenched

Homer protecting groin in Raphael's Parnassus fresco

Amid much public concern to obliterate gender gaps, castration culture remains entrenched in oppressive human history. The ancient Greek epic Odyssey, composed about 2700 years ago, records a horrific act of sexual violence against the man Melanthius:

They led Melanthius out through the hall and court,
then cut off his nose and ears with pitiless bronze sword,
tore out his testicles for the dogs to eat raw
and with enraged hearts cut off his hands and feet.

{ ἐκ δὲ Μελάνθιον ἦγον ἀνὰ πρόθυρόν τε καὶ αὐλήν·
τοῦ δ᾿ ἀπὸ μὲν ῥῖνάς τε καὶ οὔατα νηλέι χαλκῷ
τάμνον, μήδεά τ᾿ ἐξέρυσαν, κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι,
χεῖράς τ᾿ ἠδὲ πόδας κόπτον κεκοτηότι θυμῷ. }[1]

Since it’s gender-normative, violence against men typically isn’t gender-marked. Sexual violence against men often isn’t recognized, and when recognized, it’s commonly excused. In fact, castration has long been a normal practice. A mid-thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese song praised this sort of prowess:

As for her husband, in castrating pigs
no one is his equal from Burgos to Carrion,
and none like her could emasculate male chicks
so beautifully, may God forgive me.

{ E seu marido, de crastar verrões
nom lh’acham par, de Burgos a Carrion,
nem [a] ela de capar galiões
fremosament’ assi Deus mi perdom. }[2]

Castration culture is an aspect of systemic sexism. Both women and men, as well as children who ridicule boys’ genitals, are complicit in castration culture.

Women have been both agents of castration culture and staunch opponents of castrating their beloved men. In Wales in 1402, Welsh women reportedly mutilated dead English soldiers after the Welsh victory in the Battle of Bryn Glas:

neither the cruelty of Tomyris nor yet of Fulvia is comparable to this of the Welsh women, which is worthy to be recorded to the shame of a sex pretending to the title of weak vessels, and yet raging with such force of fierceness and barbarism. For the dead bodies of the Englishmen, being about a thousand lying upon the ground imbued in their own blood, was a sight a man would think grievous to look upon, and so far from exciting and stirring up affections of cruelty that it should rather have moved the beholders to commiseration and mercy. Yet did the women of Wales cut off their privities {genitals} and put one part thereof into the mouths of every dead man, in such sort that the cullions {testicles} hung down to their chins; and not so contented, they did cut off their noses and thrust them into their tails {anuses} as they laid on the ground mangled and defaced.[3]

Women didn’t just commit sexual violence against dead men. A seventeenth-century English ballad celebrates the humiliation of a man whom women castrated:

Remember the time that Bridget held,
while Margery, Nancy, Joan, and Kate
did for your wicked actions geld you.
Therefore, therefore never stand contending,
since I the truth have thus related.
Where e’er you go, ye rascal ye know,
you are by all young women hated.[4]

Another seventeenth-century English ballad tells of nine angry young women attacking a man:

There was a young man lived of late
but twenty miles from London,
who by nine maidens cruel hate
poor lad he was near undone.
For Kate and Molly with Nan and Dolly,
they scornfully beheld him.
Nay likewise Bess, with Joan no less,
all vowed that they would geld him.

He feared then to lose his life;
they over him did swagger.
And Joan pulled out the fatal knife,
as long as any dagger.
Although he see it, he could not flee it,
so strong and stout they held him.
Thus Joan and Bess, with Prue and Priss,
did vow and swear they’d geld him.[5]

Just as did a Byzantine wife in tenth-century Italy, this man’s sweetheart Susan intervened to save his testicles:

Take pity of a harmless maid,
and do not be too cruel.
Then with a sigh and sob she said,
he is my dearest jewel.
Then don’t abuse him, but pray excuse him.
Her words with comfort filled him.
Then says Doll, and so says Moll ,
we will forbear to geld him.

In another seventeenth-century ballad, a wife referred to her husband’s testicles as “jewels.”[6] In short, sweetheart Susan saved her dearest jewel’s jewels. This great woman deserves a seat at the table in a monumental work of meninist art yet to be created and prominently exhibited.

castrated man

Systemic sexism compels some oppressed men to the desperate act of self-castration. Men historically have lacked women’s certainty about biological parenthood. Despite the current availability of DNA paternity testing to eliminate gender inequality in parental knowledge, men tend to be shamed and socially coerced into not gaining that fundamental gender equality. In the Roman Empire, a baker suspecting his wife of adultery cut off his own testicles to ensure that he knew that any pregnancy would not attributable to his semen.[7]

Men castrated themselves not just for gender equality in parental knowledge, but also to avoid the crushing burden of politically imposed forced financial fatherhood. Men, from Peisistratus in ancient Athens to impoverished men today, have with good reason sought to use birth control. A seventeenth-century English medical authority reported:

We had two in this our City of Norwich which endeavored 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 sent for a chirurgeon {surgeon} of our town who speedily stops this and heals up the wound, and cures the patient. The second not being so courageous, 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 forced to send for a chirurgeon, who after having stopped the flux did agglutinate the wound, and the patient remains in very good health.[8]

Grotesquely irrational “child support” laws encourage men to avoid sex of reproductive type. Men castrating themselves is an extreme way to avoid sex of reproductive type. Like men coercing women into having abortions, self-castration is a horrible effect of men lacking reproductive choice.

Amid the long and terrible history of castration culture, some good-hearted persons successfully resisted this systemic oppression. Young and old on the Greek island of Samos across the Aegian sea from Corinth about 2600 years ago resisted the castration order of the Corinthian tyrant Periander:

Periander son of Cypselus sent to Alyattes at Sardis three hundred boys, sons of notable men in Corcyra, to be made eunuchs. The Corinthians who brought the boys put in at Samos. When the Samians heard why the boys were brought, first they bade them take sanctuary in the temple of Artemis. Then the Samians would not tolerate the suppliant boys to be dragged from the temple. When the Corinthians tried to starve the boys out, the Samians made a festival which they still similarly celebrate. As long as the boys took refuge, nightly dances of young men and women were arranged. As a popular rule for this festival, the people brought to the temple cakes of sesame and honey that the Corcyraean boys could snatch to eat. This continued to be done till the Corinthian guards left their posts and departed. The Samians then took the boys back to Corcyra.

{ Κερκυραίων γὰρ παῖδας τριηκοσίους ἀνδρῶν τῶν πρώτων Περίανδρος ὁ Κυψέλου ἐς Σάρδις ἀπέπεμψε παρὰ Ἀλυάττεα ἐπ᾿ ἐκτομῇ προσσχόντων δὲ ἐς τὴν Σάμον τῶν ἀγόντων τοὺς παῖδας Κορινθίων, πυθόμενοι οἱ Σάμιοι τὸν λόγον, ἐπ᾿ οἷσι ἀγοίατο ἐς Σάρδις, πρῶτα μὲν τοὺς παῖδας ἐδίδαξαν ἱροῦ ἅψασθαι Ἀρτέμιδος· μετὰ δὲ οὐ περιορῶντες ἀπέλκειν τοὺς ἱκέτας ἐκ τοῦ ἱροῦ, σιτίων δὲ τοὺς παῖδας ἐργόντων Κορινθίων, ἐποιήσαντο οἱ Σάμιοι ὁρτήν, τῇ καὶ νῦν ἔτι χρέωνται κατὰ ταὐτά. νυκτὸς γὰρ ἐπιγενομένης, ὅσον χρόνον ἱκέτευον οἱ παῖδες, ἵστασαν χοροὺς παρθένων τε καὶ ἠιθέων, ἱστάντες δὲ τοὺς χοροὺς τρωκτὰ σησάμου τε καὶ μέλιτος ἐποιήσαντο νόμον φέρεσθαι, ἵνα ἁρπάζοντες οἱ τῶν Κερκυραίων παῖδες ἔχοιεν τροφήν. ἐς τοῦτο δὲ τόδε ἐγίνετο, ἐς ὃ οἱ Κορίνθιοι τῶν παίδων οἱ φύλακοι οἴχοντο ἀπολιπόντες· τοὺς δὲ παῖδας ἀπήγαγον ἐς Κέρκυραν οἱ Σάμιοι. }[9]

No better reason could exist for a festival than to save boys from castration. Surely the young men and women dancing defiantly in that temple of Artemis passionately intermingled in beautiful patterns.

Desiring that the species of animals persist consistently and stably and not perish, the creator established renewing by means of their sexual intercourse and procreation. Through this renewal they do not totally die. The creator therefore constructed animals with natural organs that are fitting and proper for this work. The creator furthermore infused into those organs such marvelous strength and lovely delightfulness that all animals exceedingly delight in sexual intercourse. To the contrary, if animals disliked sexual intercourse, the species of animals certainly would perish.

{ Creator volens animalium genus firmiter ac stabiliter permanere et non perire, per coitum illud ac per generationem disposuit renovari, ut renovatum interitum ex toto non haberet. Ideoque complasmavit animalibus naturalia membra que ad hoc opus apta forent et propria, eisque tam mirabilem virtutem et amabilem delectationem inseruit ut nullum sit animalium quod non pernimium delectetur coitu. Nam si animalia coitum odirent, animalium genus pro certo periret. }[10]

Castration culture is a terrible injustice entrenched from the very foundations of Western civilization. For millennia complacent elites have tolerated or even promoted castration culture.[11] Today everyone must explicitly denounce castration culture and commit to the long and hard work of overcoming it.

The soldier’s pole is fall’n: young boys and girls
are level now with men; the odds is gone,
and there is nothing left remarkable
beneath the visiting moon.[12]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Odyssey 22.474-7, ancient Greek text of Murray (LCL, 1919) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Odysseus’s putative son Telemachus and two loyal men agricultural servants castrated Melanthius, a disloyal agricultural servant in Penelope and Odysseus’s household. Outside of the Homeric tradition, Penelope viciously controlled Odysseus’s reproductive capacity. She contrived to have Odysseus murder his extramarital son Euryalus.

Feeding a man’s testicles to dogs isn’t an idiosyncratic practice. While classical Greek authors widely condemned it, bodily mutilation of living and dead men apparently was an accepted practice in the Homeric world. Kucewicz (2016). Bodily mutilation of men included castration. Before the beggar Irus engaged in a boxing match with the disguised Odysseus, the Penelope-courting suitor Antinous similarly threatened him:

If this man conquers you and proves stronger,
I will throw you onto a black ship and to the mainland
send you, to King Echetus, the maimer of all men.
He will cut off your nose and ears with pitiless bronze sword,
tear off your testicles and give them raw to dogs to eat.

{ αἴ κέν σ᾿ οὗτος νικήσῃ κρείσσων τε γένηται,
πέμψω σ᾿ ἤπειρόνδε, βαλὼν ἐν νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
εἰς Ἔχετον βασιλῆα, βροτῶν δηλήμονα πάντων,
ὅς κ᾿ ἀπὸ ῥῖνα τάμῃσι καὶ οὔατα νηλέι χαλκῷ,
μήδεά τ᾿ ἐξερύσας δώῃ κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι. }

Odyssey 18.83-87, sourced as above. King Echetus apparently was an archaic institutional representative of castration culture. Underscoring the prominence of such a threat, the Trojan King Priam feared dogs chewing on his dead body’s genitals:

But when dogs chew the grey head and grey beard
and genitals of a slain old man, that disgrace
is truly most pitiable for us grief-filled mortals.

{ ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ πολιόν τε κάρη πολιόν τε γένειον
αἰδῶ τ᾽ αἰσχύνωσι κύνες κταμένοιο γέροντος,
τοῦτο δὴ οἴκτιστον πέλεται δειλοῖσι βροτοῖσιν. }

Iliad 22.74-6, ancient Greek text of Murray (LCL, 1924) via Perseus, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Ian Johnston. Men historically have been disparaged sexually as being like dogs. Castration culture gains support in part through disparagement of men’s sexuality.

For a medieval example of a dog attacking and injuring a man’s testicles, see the thirteenth-century Old French fabliau Constant du Hamel, vv. 890-7 in A and B manuscripts. The Old French text and English translation of Dubin (2013) pp. 808-11 doesn’t represent this sexual violence. On the textual issue, Burrows (2000).

[2] Fernão Garcia Esgaravunha, “Joam Coelho’s mistress-housekeeper {Esta ama, cuj’é Joam Coelho},” vv. 15-18 (from stanza 3), Galician-Portuguese text (manuscript B 1511) from Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas, my English translation, benefiting from that of Zenith (1995) p. 77 (song 37).

[3] Holinshed (1577), v. 3, p. 34 (in 1808 reprinting), with modernized capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. Holinshed apparently inserted this account as an addendum under the year 1405 (year 6 of King Henry IV’s reign). He evidently drew it from the Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham:

Then was perpetrated a crime never heard of before. After the battle the Welsh women came to the slaughtered bodies and cut off their genitals. In the mouth of each man they placed his penis, with the testicles hanging down above his chin. They pressed the dead men’s severed noses into the men’s anuses.

{ Ibique perpetratum est facinus, a saeculis inauditum: nam foeminae Wallencium, post conflictum, accesserant ad corpora peremptorum et, abscindentes membra genitalia, in ore cujuslibet posuerunt membrum pudendum, inter dentes testiculis dependentibus, supra mentum; et nasos abscissos presserunt in culis eorundem. }

Chronica Maior, within entry for the year 1402, Latin text from Trokelowe, Blaneford & Riley (1866) p. 341, my English translation, benefiting from that of Preest (2005) p. 322. This account occurs within Annales Ricardi Secundi et Henrici Quarti, now regarded to be part of Walsingham’s Chronica Maior. Eska cites both accounts and characterizes the story as fabricated anti-Welsh propaganda. Eska (2013) pp. 149-50.

[4] Verses from “Robin the Plow-man’s Courage; / OR, / Harry the Millers miserable misfortune / in Courting of young Kate, who declared he had lost his / his Testicles, and therefore far unfit for Wedlock” (Pepys Ballads 3.305), first published in the late-seventeenth century. For this and subsequent ballad quotes, I’ve modernized capitalization, punctuation, and spelling for ease of reading. All the ballads cited are available in the excellent English Broadside Ballad Archive.

Another ballad associates women sexually assaulting men with women castrating men:

I wonder that this age is grown
to such a vast confusion
that maids won’t let young men alone,
but by a strange intrusion
they take much pleasure to gain their treasure —
their very fingers itches.
So that men’s care is now to wear
a padlock on their breeches.

The tidings soon began to spread
through e’ery town and village,
How young maids was by fury led,
so that they vow’d to pillage
the young men’s treasure and use their pleasure —
they rob them of their riches.
So that they swear they now will wear
a padlock on their breeches.

Beginning verses of ballad “The Hartford-shire Mens / Fears of the Maidens Furies. / It being an Answer to the Nine Maidens Attempt in Gelding the / Young-man” (Pepys Ballads 3.276), first published 1685-1688. According to authoritative current statistics, women rape men about as aften as men rape women. Rape is violence against a person’s sexuality. Raping men is thus related to castrating men.

More generally, violent agency is often gender-structured as women inciting men to violence. A woman incites her husband to castrate a man in the ballad “The Maltster caught in a Trap / Or, The Witty Ale-Wife. / This Ale-wife she was run upon the Maltster’s score / Full Twenty pounds for Malt, I think, and more: / But he desir’d a bit of Venus Game, / And I think he paid full dearly for the same: / He made a Discharge I say for once, / And glad he was that he could save his Stones: / He was lamfateed till his bones were sore; / He has made a vow he’l ne’r come there no more; / The Ale-wifes Husband did so belabour him, / That made him stink and piss for very shame” (Crawford.EB.606), first published late in the seventeenth century. In the thirteenth-century Old French fabliau Constant du Hamel, Ysabel and her woman servant Galestrot contrive to have Ysabel’s husband Constant du Hamel rape three women. For an Old French text with English translation, Dubin (2013) pp. 760-813 (fabliau 55).

[5] Verses from “The Nine Maidens Fury / TO THE / Hartford=Shire Man. / Who would have gelded him, but that his Sweetheart Susan coming in, begged his pardon” (Pepys Ballads 3.275), first published between 1685 and 1688. The subsequent quote above is similarly from this ballad.

[6] See the ballad “THE / Quaker’s Wives Lamentation / For the LOSS of / Her Husbands Jewels, / VVho Gelded himself (in Petticoat-Lane,) to vex his wife” (Pepys Ballads 3.302), probably first published late in the seventeenth century.

[7] Recounted in Browne (1678) pp. 327-8, citing Galen’s Ars Medica through the Latin translation of Martin Akakia (Acakia) (Venice, 1549). Martin Akakia (1500-1551) was a physician to King Francis I of France. The story doesn’t appear in the Greek text and English translation of Ars Medica that Johnston (2016) provides. However, the textual tradition of Galen is voluminous and complex. The ultimate source of this story is unclear, but it plausibly could come from Galen.

[8] Browne (1678) p. 327, with modernized capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. Juvenal and other authorities have long attested that men deprived of their testicles could still uses their penises to have sex with women. Cf. Skuse (2020) p. 386. These men couldn’t, however, make women pregnant. That prevented them from fruitfully cuckolding other men. Under “child support” laws, infertile men could still be legally subject to forced financial fatherhood.

[9] Herodotus, Histories / The Persian Wars 3.48, ancient Greek text and English translation (with my adaptation for ease of reading) from Godley (1920). The English translation of Macaulay (1890) is also freely available online. One hopes that this tyrant Periander differed from the Periander that some included among the seven sages of Greece and Rome.

[10] Constantinus Africanus, Book of Sexual Intercourse {Liber de coitu}, prologue, Latin text from Cartelle (1983), my English translation benefiting from those of Delany (1969), p. 56, and Wallis (2010), p. 511. Constantini Africani Opera (Basil, 1536) is freely available online and provides a fairly good Latin text of De coitu.

An eleventh-century scholar physician-monk from north Africa, Constantinus Africanus migrated to southern Italy. He translated De coitu from an Arabic work of Ibn al-Jazzār. Ibn al-Jazzār was a tenth-century Muslim physician (died about 979) working in what’s presently Tunisia. By early in the twelfth century, scholars associated with the medical school of Salerno in southern Italy wrote a similar work entitled The Small Book of Sexual Intercourse {Liber minor de coitu}. On that work, Bifulco et at. (2018). Durham Cathedral Library MS. C.IV.12 documents that Liber minor de coitu was written no later than early in the twelfth century.

[11] Skuse (2020) provides an appalling example of moral obtuseness and  intellect-degrading instrumental scholarly work in support of dominant gynocentric ideology. Id. shows some awareness of the gender oppression that men experience. However, following the conventional rhetorical tactic of dominant gynocentric ideology, it attributes injustice against men to “patriarchal and patrilineal structures”:

The above accounts make clear that in removing their generative potential, self-castrating men literalized their feelings of emasculation and powerlessness. In changing their bodies, they also sought to abdicate a masculine identity based on heteronormativity, patrilineage and patriarchal authority; a role whose requirements they found impossible to fulfil. … The masculine ideal was, they felt, one to which they could never attain. Their control over their own circumstances was insufficient to ensure the smooth running of the patriarchal and patrilineal structures on which ‘manhood’ was posited. Even more frustratingly, they found that their desire for sex persistently threatened their pursuit of an orderly lifestyle. Self-geldings occurred in part because men felt that they could not trust women, and in part because they did not trust themselves.

Skuse (2020) pp. 391, 393. The ideological intent seems to be to blame men for castrating themselves and obscure the real circumstances that induce men to self-castration:

To geld oneself was a curiously masochistic response to fears of cuckoldry or conjugal disorder. … The self-castrators in these stories clearly wish to reassert control over the women with whom they are involved, primarily by enforcing their celibacy.

Id. p. 378, 390. Self-castration cannot be meanfully understood apart from the history of disparaging men’s sexual organs; acute injustices of penal-biased punishment, particularly for domestic violence; the politically imposed, crushing financial burdens of forced financial fatherhood; and absurdly irrational practices of paternity assignment. Skuse refers to accounts of self-castration as “blackly humorous anecdotes.” Id. p. 392. In fact, self-castration is the ultimate protest against lack of power to change grotesque gender injustices.

[12] William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 4.15.67–70. Cleopatra speaks these words right after Antony dies.

[images] (1) Homer protecting his groin. Detail from Raphael’s fresco The Parnassus. Painted in 1511. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The castrated man Harry the Miller, from late-seventeenth-century ballad “Robin the Plow-man’s Courage.”

References:

Bifulco, Maurizio, Emmanuele A. Jannini, Vieri Boncinelli, and Simona Pisanti. 2018. “The modernity of medieval sexual medicine.” Fertility and Sterility. Published online Dec. 5, 2018.

Browne, John. 1678. A compleat discourse of wounds, both in general and particular whereunto are added the severall fractures of the skull, with their variety of figures: as also a treatise of gunshot-wounds in general. London: Printed by E. Flesher for William Jacob. (alternate text)

Burrows, Daron. 2000. “Constant du Hamel: Textual Tradition and Ecclesiastical Castration.” French Studies Bulletin. 21 (76): 2-4.

Cartelle, Enrique Montero, ed. 1983. Constantini Liber de coitu: el tratado de andrologia de Constantino el Africano: estudio y edicion critica. Monografias de la Universidad de Santiago de Compostela 77. Santiago de Compostela, Spain: Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.

Delany, Paul. 1969. “Constantinus Africanus’ De Coitu: A Translation.” The Chaucer Review. 4 (1): 55-65.

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The Fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Eska, Charlene M. 2013. “‘Imbrued in their owne bloud’: Castration in Early Welsh and Irish Sources.” Ch. 7 (pp. 149-173) in Tracy, Larissa. Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer.

Godley, A. D., ed. and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Loeb Classical Library 117-120. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holinshed, Raphael. 1577. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 3 vols. London: Imprinted by Henry Bynneman for John Harrison. (1808 reprinting in six volumes)

Johnston, Ian, ed. and trans. 2016. Galen. On the Constitution of the Art of Medicine. The Art of Medicine. A Method of Medicine to Glaucon. Loeb Classical Library 523. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kucewicz, Cezary. 2016. “Mutilation of the Dead and the Homeric Gods.” The Classical Quarterly. 66 (2): 425-436.

Preest, David, trans. 2005. The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376-1422. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Skuse, Alanna. 2020. “‘One Stroak of His Razour’: Tales of Self-Gelding in Early Modern England.” Social History of Medicine. 33 (2): 377-393.

Trokelowe, John de, Henry Blaneford, and Henry T. Riley. 1866. Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde: monachorum S. Albani, necnon quorundam anonymorum Chronica et annales, regnantibus Henrico Tertio, Edwardo Primo, Edwardo Secundo, Ricardo Secundo, et Henrico Quarto. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.

Wallis, Faith. 2010. Medieval Medicine: a reader. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month [email protected] day *