The reign of Queen Victoria is remembered for two things above all else — imperialism and prudishness. Sexual repression was the watchword of the era. Fashion trends soon saw women in dresses that reach from their jaw to the ground. A glimpse of ankle was so scandalously arousing that even tablecloths got longer, to ensure no gentleman would accidentally see a particularly well-turned table leg. Except, despite that being what we “know” about Victorian age, less than half of what I just said it true. My name’s…
“Julius Caesar was born by Cesarean section, that’s where the name comes from.” A Caesarian, or C section, is the medical term for the surgical delivery of a baby by cutting through the abdomen and uterus. It is widely held that Caesarian Sections got their name from the infamous Roman Ruler Gaius Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar has been touted for centuries as the first person, or at least the first would-be-famous person, to be born in this way, by cutting open the mother to remove the child, therefore the process was called a ‘Caesarian’. It’s apocrypha that’s been copy-pasted for a long time, much longer than Washington and the cherry tree, which we talked about in the first installment way back in episode #. The surgical removal of a baby from the womb was already a thing, so Cesar wasn’t the first on the receiving end of it, to thus bestow its name. In fact, he wasn’t even born that way. This idea has been repeated since a 10th century Byzantine-Greek historical encyclopaedia called The Suda, which said ‘The emperors of the Romans receive this name from Julius Caesar, who was not born. For when his mother died in the ninth month, they cut her open, took him out, and named him thus; for in the Roman tongue dissection is called ‘Caesar.’ So right off the bat, there’s: This text states that Caesarians are not named after Caesar but instead Caesar was named after Caesarians. In Latin caesus is the past participle of caedere meaning “to cut”.
I can’t speak to the veracity of the Latin, and feel free to at me if you can, but one thing that is clear is that Cesar wasn’t born by C-section. At the time that Gaius Julius was born, the practice of cutting a baby from its mother was actually required by law, but only if the mother has died. Known as the Lex Caesaria, the law was established hundreds of years before Julius Caesar was born, in the time of Numa Pompilius 715-673 BCE, stating that if a pregnant woman died, the baby had to be taken from her womb. This was to comply with Roman ritual and religious custom which forbade the burial of pregnant women. The Lex Caesaria doesn’t mention the child surviving; that wasn’t what they were concerned with. Religious practice at the time was very clear that a mother could not be properly buried while she was still pregnant. That was the original purpose for the procedure. Somewhere along the line, ambitious physicians thought it might be possible to take what had been a post-mortem preparation and turn it into lifesaving medicine. For the child, at least. As a testament to the fact that women did not survive caesarians back then, the Lex Caesaria required a living mother be past the 40th week of pregnancy before the procedure was performed. This meant the best chance for the child-in-carry, as well as reflecting an acceptance that the mother could not survive the delivery, a situation that persisted until the end of the 19th century.
Combine that new information with the fact that Caesar’s mother was alive until he was an adult, and the whole idea falls apart. Not only had his mother Aurelia survived delivering Gaius Julius, she was heavily involved in his upbringing, a prototype of today’s helicopter parenting. Quick bonus fact: helicopter isn’t made from heli- and -copter, but from helix for spiral and pteron for wing, just like pterodactyl. “With scrupulous piety and modesty,” the historian Tacitus wrote, “she regulated not only the boy’s studies and occupations, but even his recreations and games.” Aurelia raised Gaius Julius herself, rather than shunting him off to nurses. She helped him out of a scrape when his refusal to divorce his wife made the whole family the target of a powerful enemy and when Cesar was away on campaigns, Aurelia kept a constant watch on his next wife Pompeia, to make it more difficult for Pompeia to cheat on Caesar with his lover Clodius. Aurelia died ten years before Julius Caesar died, not in childbirth.
While C-sections were a death sentence for most of history, there is a case, believed to be the only one of its kind, of a woman and child surviving after she gave herself a *caesarian section without a doctor. On March 5, 2000, in Mexico, Inés Ramírez Perez of southern Mexico went into labor for her eighth time at age 40. She had six living children, but had lost baby #7 to complications with the delivery. After 12 hours of difficult labor, with the nearest hospital 50 miles away and her husband as a nearby bar that had no phone, Perez decided drastic measures were called for. She took several swigs from a bottle of hard liquor to dull the pain and used a six-inch knife to make three vertical incisions in her abdomen. She had no medical training, but drew on what she knew of the internal structures of animals she’d butchered. After about an hour of grueling work, she was able to pull the baby boy out of her own womb, cut the umbilical cord and pass the [bleep] out. When she regained consciousness, Perez sent her six year old to town to find help; he Benito returned with the local health aide who sewed up Perez’s wound with ordinary needle and thread. Other health aides then arrived and helped transport Perez and the newborn Orlando to a hospital eight hours away, where doctors were able to patch her up properly. The obstetricians at the hospital marveled at Perez’s self-administered surgery. She hadn’t hit any internal organs, apart from the one she was aiming for, had no internal bleeding, and no infection. Those doctors would eventually publish Perez’s case study in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, which helped to shine a light on the plight of women who live in remote locations and lack access to adequate medical care.
If you’re a husband who wants to avoid any baby surprises and you’re going a little farther afield than the local cantina, say on a Crusade or pilgrimage, may we suggest you invest in a handy-dandy chastity belt. These devices have been used since the Middle Ages to prevent wives from having sexual intercourse in their husband’s absence. Ride away with the only key, safe in the knowledge that your marital assets will remain un-pilfered until your return. To this day, metal and leather chastity belts reside in museum cases around the world, testament to their effectiveness, or at least a potent mix of paranoia and misogyny. According to curators at the Semmelweis Museum in Budapest, which displayed an exhibition on the history of the chastity belt in 2010, the belts were thought to be introduced as an answer to unchecked female promiscuity when knights left for battles, pilgrimages or religious crusades. The inclination to believe the myth of the chastity belt is understandable, though. “In medieval Europe, any sexual activity that did not lead to conception was supposed to be forbidden,” Smith said.
According to Albrecht Classen, author of “The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process” the devices were first mentioned in a treatise on siege machines written by Konrad Kyeser in 1405. Kyeser was a German engineer and artist, and the concept for the chastity belt appeared in the afterword of his treatise, wherein he described the belts as an imaginative joke. Kyeser’s book also included fart jokes, a fanciful elevator, and invisibility devices. His is one of the few contemporary sources found the mention chastity belts at all and it was clearly not to be taken seriously. The more that academics searched for references, the more they began to question the authenticity of the devices. “No author of sermon literature, of penitentiary texts, or didactic and legal writers has ever mentioned the chastity belt probably because already the basic idea behind it defies the basic needs of the human (female) body,” Classen wrote. Lesley Smith, a late-16th century historian and curator for Tutbury Castle in the United Kingdom, agrees with Classen. In a 2007 article for the British Medical Journal, she wrote, “I have travelled abroad and looked at art collections and, as yet, havenꞌt seen a chastity belt that can be proved to be medieval in origin.”
Not only is there scarce historical evidence that chastity belts were an actual undergarment in the Middle Ages, but there is no logic to support their existence, either. A chastity belt might stop your wife from fooling around while you’re gone, but it could just as well kill her before you get back. The “historic examples” in museums and books are made mostly or entirely of metal. Female listeners, and frankly all listeners, would do well to harken to the classic maternal advice that cotton underpants are best because they breathe. If nylon could cause trouble, imagine what iron would do. Extant chastity belts have holes for urination menstruation and defecation, but let’s be real, would a person who would commission one of those really be well-versed enough with female anatomy to line those up correctly? Even if you could wash sufficiently, keeping the skin under the iron dry would be almost impossible. Then there’s the chafing. Even the most demure lady would move enough to cause the metal to irritate her skin, in short order causing wounds that are destined to get infected in short order. Maybe they lined or padded it with something. Fabric, leather or horsehair might stop the metal from touching the skin, but it would basically be like wearing a petri dish next to your lady garden.
Classen likens the chastity-belt myth to another widely held (but similarly incorrect) belief: that medieval people thought the Earth was flat. People might have be quick to believe that people in olden times were stupid and backwards because it made them look advanced and civilized by comparison. Chastity belts and other “medieval relics” were all the rage in Victorian society, especially. In fact, certain enterprising Victorian businessmen used the chastity belt myth as a selling point for similar metallic unmentionables designed to protect women from rape. They did not, however, overcome any of the original’s design flaws. There were also male versions to stop young men from interfering with themselves. It was the people of the 19th century, not the 9th, who crafted the chastity belts that are on display in museums now.
The Victorians also gave us iron maidens [music sting]. No, not that one, the iron maiden as in the sarcaphagus-shaped, spike-encrusted torture device.
While many people think about the Middle Ages they see it as a time when people were tortured by a wide collection of diabolical instruments. They stand on display in museums and populate every form of media. The fact that they, like the chastity belt, simply didn’t exist when we’ve been told they existed hasn’t damped our interest. Says L.A.Parry in his book “The History of Torture in England:”
And what strikes us most in considering the mediaeval tortures, is not so much their diabolical barbarity, which it is indeed impossible to exaggerate, as the extraordinary variety, and what may have be termed the artistic skill, they displayed. They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expended on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardour of a passion.
The first reference to the iron maiden came at the end of the 18th century, when a writer named Johann Philipp Siebenkees described one in a guide-book to the city of Nuremberg, Germany. By his account, in the year 1515, the city executed a criminal with a device that resembled an Egyptian mummy case, but had doors on it to allow a person to be put inside, where sharp spikes would pierce him. “Slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulder, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him, and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”
It’s likely that Siebenkees just invented this story, but he must have given the people what they wanted. By the early 19th century the Iron Maiden was being displayed across Europe; one of them was even exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, which helped to legitimize its reputation. The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg was later denounced as a fake, but by then the idea was entrenched. The iron maiden was still included in medieval histories, with some books claiming it was used as far back as the 12th century.
Siebenkees wasn’t even the first to dream up a terrible box full of nails as a torture device, though. “The City of God,” a Latin book of Christian philosophy written in the fifth century A.D., tells a tale of torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Marcus didn’t die of being impaled, though; he was forced to stay awake lest the nails pierce his skin, and eventually died of sleep deprivation.
In doesn’t take much reading on the topic of medieval torture devices to notice that evidence is thin on the ground. While some devices like the rack, Catherine wheel, stock and pillory were real, — the ancient world used such outrageous punishments as the Brazen Bull, a hollow metal bull that the condemned was lock into and under which a fire was built, so that the person’s cries sounded like the bull bellowing — the more bizarre, ingenious, or sadistic accounts start to look thin under any scrutiny. The events recounted tend to take place in the 17th to 19th centuries, not the Middles Ages. Anecdotes from the Middle Ages may be included, but I wouldn’t go hanging my hat on an anecdote. The first recorded mention of many devices also comes too late. Like the chastity belt, there are no contemporary accounts of these devices used, even in the criminal record. The authors will mention various torture devices, and usually add in some statement that while we first hear about it in the 17th century, it was ‘undoubtedly’ or ‘would have been’ also seen in medieval times. These statements never include any evidence to back up such assertions.
Where we’re not dealing with outright fabrication, we may be dealing with a simple misinterpretation of items outside of their original context. Take, for instance, the so-called ‘Pear of Anguish’. The metallic device can be found in several museums, which will note that it is from the Middle Ages and be vague on other details. Typically, this pear-shaped item has a latch at its tip, which when triggered will open the spring-loaded lobes. The lobes can then be screwed back together with a key. The idea behind the Pear of Anguish was that it be inserted into the mouth of the victim (or other orifice, depending on to offense) and then opened up, tearing the flesh and causing terrible pain. The first such object referred to as a Pear of Anguish appeared around the middle of the 19th century. Again, there are no accounts of the device from the Middle Ages, with a tiny asterisk. There is a reference to a ‘pear’ type object that was used by a well-known criminal in Paris at the turn of the 17th-century, but this he apparently used to gag his victims, which seems a lot more labor-intensive than a bit of cloth. The purported Pears of Anguish on display these days would actually have been pretty bad at the job we’ve decided they did. Not only would have the springs been too weak to open up a bodily orifice, but the way the latch was designed meant that it could not be opened at all if it was inside something. The devices, if they were ever used by anyone, could just as even have been a prototype speculum of sorts, a brace to hold the mouth open for dental work, or even a shoe-stretcher.
While the Pear of Anguish may have become a torture device by people not knowing what it was really intended to be, the famous Iron Maiden seems to be a deliberate phoney invention from a more modern mind. This does not mean that torture did not exist in the Middle Ages – it certainly did, and by the later medieval period was considered a legal practice for obtaining a confession. However, medieval people were just not as imaginative and creative as modern day people believe. Instead what little we know about torture methods suggests that fairly simple methods were used, such as binding people very tightly with ropes. Some so-called torture devices, like the pillory, the bit of wood with holes for the head and hands, actually did little to harm individuals and was designed to be more punitive. For example, several London bakers who committed fraud by selling loaves smaller than they charged for or filling out the bread with sawdust or chalk, were sentenced to spend a few hours bound up in the pillory, where they had their fake bread burnt under them. Quick aside: the difference between pillory and stock was that stocks restrained the ankles of a sitting person and the pillory restrained the head and hands of a standing person.
You know what else the Victorians loved? Egypt. A clunky segue, but it will do. If one image had to be chosen to represent Egypt, you couldn’t do better than the pyramids. These colossal structures, some originally covered in brilliant white limestone, serve as the final resting place of the pharaohs, built almost in defiance of their own size by the hands of slaves … Wanna guess which part of that statement I’m about to debunk? The belief that slaves were principally responsible for pyramid-building likely began with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who described the pyramid builders as slaves. This was passed from historian to historian, eventually making its way into popular culture, like the movie Cleopatra, a garbage fire of a production I’ll get around to covering one day.
In 2010, archeologists discovered tombs more than 4,000 years old that belonged not the royal family but to people who worked on the Great Pyramids of Giza, which provides evidence that slaves did not build the ancient monuments. The series of modest nine-foot-deep shafts held a dozen skeletons of pyramid builders. They were perfectly preserved by dry desert sand. Nearby were jars that once contained beer and bread meant for the workers’ afterlife. The mud-brick tombs were uncovered near the Giza pyramids, stretching beyond a burial site first discovered in the 1990s and dating to the 4th Dynasty (2575 B.C. to 2467 B.C.), when the great pyramids were built on the fringes of present-day Cairo. Egypt’s archaeology chief Zahi Hawass said that the findings show that the workers were in fact paid laborers.
According to Hawass, the builders came from poor Egyptian families from the north and the south, and were respected for their work. They were so respected that those who died during construction were bestowed the honor of being buried in the tombs near the sacred pyramids of their pharaohs. “No way would they have been buried so honorably if they were slaves,” Hawass said. The tombs contained no gold or valuables, which made them unappealing to grave-robbers, which certainly contributes to their having been found at all. The bodies were not mummified, but were arranged with their heads pointing to the West and the feet to the East, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs. It took 10,000 workers more than 30 years to build a single pyramid. During that time, they worked in three month shifts. The builders ate far better than slave, with meat being a staple. Evidence from the site suggests that the works consumed 21 cattle and 23 sheep sent to them daily from local farms. Though they were not slaves, the pyramid builders led a life of hard labor. Their skeletons have signs of arthritis, and their lower vertebrae show signs of wear and injury.
The builders weren’t slaves, and neither were they Jewish, as usually goes hand-in-hand. Says Amihai Mazar, professor at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “No Jews built the pyramids because Jews didn’t exist at the period when the pyramids were built.” The Old Testament Book of Exodus says: “So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with backbreaking labor;” according to Mazar, “If the Hebrews built anything, then it was the city of Ramses as mentioned in Exodus.” Dieter Wildung, a former director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, said it is “common knowledge in serious Egyptology” that the pyramid builders were not slaves and that the construction of the pyramids and the story of the Israelites in Egypt were separated by hundreds of years. “The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood,” Wildung told The Associated Press. “The world simply could not believe the pyramids were built without oppression and forced labor, but out of loyalty to the pharaohs.”
And that’s where… But back to the supposedly prudish Queen Victoria. For starters, she had nine children, with a husband about whom she wrote passionately in her diary and in letters. If anything, it would appear that Albert was in fact much more prudish than his wife. Queen Victoria’s art collection showed a fondness for the naked human form, both male and female, and on at least three separate occasions, she gave him nude paintings for his birthday. Does that sound like a prude to you? Remember… Thanks…