Castration has been around for millennia and has meant different things to different cultures. The reasons why humans castrate one another vary from punishment to atonement to self-discipline to elimination of rivals. The history of castration might make you uncomfortable, but it wasn’t always intended to be a bad thing. Sure, surgical castration before modern advances in medicine was extremely painful, but the end results could mean political advancement or religious salvation. At the same time, however, you could have been forced into a singing career to support your family or punished for a crime.
These facts about castration throughout history are both disturbing and interesting. Whether it was accidental or self-inflicted, people who were castrated play fascinating roles across a number of distinct cultures and time periods.
During The Renaissance, Italians Castrated Young Boys To Turn Them Into Sexually Appealing Singers
Starting in the 16th century, thousands of young Italian boys were deprived of their male sex organs so they would sing in high voices for their entire lives – they were dubbed “castrati.” The Vatican employed castrati in the Papal choir and recruited them in droves after women were prohibited from being onstage by Pope Innocent XI in 1686.
The castrati were not unique to Rome or Italy, but the use of castration to create choir boys certainly was. Castrati existed in Eastern Europe as early as the fifth century, but many later became celebrities of sorts when they performed in opera houses and the like. By the 18th and 19th centuries, castrati were created by their parents or other family members to transform children who showed early singing skills into lifelong talents. Castrati supposedly happened through accidents, such as having been “kicked, bitten, born deformed [or]… gored by wild boars,” although really parents purposefully had their children’s genitals removed to preserve their voices.
Sex Offenders Are Still Surgically Or Chemically Castrated In Western Cultures
Castration for sexual offenses in Western cultures has involved both surgical and chemical routes. In the US, surgical or chemical castration is a legal punishment for sex crimes in nine states, but voluntary castration is also an option for offenders. To avoid long prison sentences, sex offenders in states like California and Texas have asked for castration as an alternative. The debate over whether the decision can be considered truly voluntary is ongoing.
Chemical castration involves using hormones to reduce or eliminate a sex offender’s sex drive. Chemical castration has been a voluntary option in Britain since the mid-20th century. Famously, mathematician Alan Turing voluntarily underwent chemical castration for homosexuality during World War II. Chemical castration is used in the United States, Portugal, Poland, Maldova, Macedonia, Estonia, Israel, Australia, India, Russia, and many other countries in various forms.
18th-Century Russian Christian Mystics Castrated Themselves
The Russian Skoptsy were a sect of Russian Orthodox Christians that began during the 18th century. The group’s founder, Andre Ivanov, was previously a flagellant but castrated himself and 13 disciples in 1757. Ivanov was arrested and sent to Siberia where he died, but his followers kept the castration cult alive.
Ivanov’s assistant, Kondratii Selivanov, was also sent to Siberia, but he escaped and returned to St. Petersburg. He declared himself to be the “Son of God” and was arrested several times before his death in 1832. The group’s popularity and devotion to God through self-castration appealed to peasants and middling ranks of society alike. The male members of the group castrated themselves, and the female members removed their breasts.
By the middle of the 19th century, 515 male and 240 female members were forced to go to Siberia between 1847 and 1866. Because the sect had around 5,444 members, its numbers weren’t severely damaged by the deportations. It wasn’t until Josef Stalin’s series of persecutions that the group was thought to be eliminated from Russia. There are “anti-sexuals” in Russia today, however, who are associated with Skoptsy and self-castration.
In The Byzantine Empire, Eunuchs Were Some Of The Best Military Generals
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Byzantine empire used eunuchs as army commanders, court officials, churchmen, and high administrators. In the Byzantine empire, two of the most successful generals were eunuchs, namely Solomon (d. 544) and Narses (480-574). Both men were sent to re-conquer areas of the former Roman empire by Justinian, who used eunuchs as soldiers because they didn’t have ties to rival aristocratic families.
Solomon was accidentally made a eunuch as a baby and was used by Justinian to conquer the Moors in North Africa. It’s unclear how Narses became a eunuch, but he went from imperial guard to grand chamberlain under Justinian, ultimately becoming one of his most loyal and trusted men. Narses was sent to Italy to fight against the Ostrogoth kingdom during the 550s and became the prefect at Ravenna.
Having a governing eunuch of Ravenna became a common aspect of Byzantine rule in the western half of the Mediterranean. From the late sixth century until the end of the exarchate in 751, several of the exarchs were eunuchs.
Rapists Were Castrated In Post-Revolutionary Virginia
In 1778, Thomas Jefferson wrote a revised law for the commonwealth of Virginia, hoping to remove the death penalty from capital offenses. As the head of a committee tasked with revising all of Virginia’s laws, the group proposed that “whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.”
Historians debate whether Jefferson meant this law to be lex talionis, where the perpetrator of a crime is punished by injury to the part of his anatomy most comparable to where the victim of the crime was harmed.
The Normans Castrated Enemies To Assert Their Dominance
When the Normans arrived in southern Italy and Sicily during the 11th and 12th centuries, they used castration as discipline for the most heinous crimes. Castration and blinding were set as punishments for treason by William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066, a tradition continued by Anglo-Norman and Southern Norman leaders alike.
Castration was practiced elsewhere in medieval Europe, usually for sexual offenses. The Normans, however, used it as a way to deprive men of their masculinity, social identity, and power.
Early Christians Castrated Themselves To Prove Their Devotion
During the first three centuries of Christian expansion, devotees castrated themselves to prove their dedication to the faith, mostly due to one mention of the practice in the New Testament. Matthew 19:12 reads:
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.
Many Christians took it literally. Early church writer Origen (185-251 CE) castrated himself, and other Christians followed suit. The problem became so widespread that the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE addressed the issue:
If any one in sickness has been subjected by physicians to a surgical operation, or if he has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain among the clergy; but, if any one in sound health has castrated himself, it behooves that such an one, if [already] enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this is said of those who willfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men the Canon admits to the clergy.
Castration Was A Long-Standing Punishment In China
According to legend, castration was a legal punishment in China from 2281 BCE until around 600 CE, although even then its practice still didn’t end entirely. Not all Chinese leaders endorsed the use of castration, however, and many outlawed it during their reigns.
As a punishment, castration was deemed appropriate in the event of a revolt, for adultery, as an alternative to the death penalty, and for political dissent. Castration in China included the removal of both the penis and testicles. Both organs were cut off with a knife.
Chinese Eunuchs Were Key Imperial Officials
Eunuchs, or huanguan, in China were first mentioned during the Shang dynasty (1765-1222 BCE) and were used by Imperial Courts until the 20th century. Castrated men were considered innocuous and useful in royal courts in Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, but their use in China far outlasted their use in other cultures’.
Eunuchs didn’t start off as officials and men of influence, however. During the reign of Qin Shihuangdi in the third century BCE, men were castrated and enslaved for the purpose of building the emperor’s elaborate tomb. Court eunuchs became increasingly common by the third century CE and, by the seventh century, were used to command palace guards and oversee the military.
The castrated men closest to the emperor developed reputations for being ruthless, cunning, and greedy. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when hundreds and later thousands of eunuchs dominated the government, attempted purges of eunuchs were common but often unsuccessful.
The Ottoman Empire Used Eunuchs To Manage Harems
Like other royal courts, eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire provided services to the ruler without threat or potential challenge to his authority. It’s unclear when the Ottoman Empire began using eunuchs but it most likely began during the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire started using white, Christian eunuchs but soon preferred Black eunuchs from Africa.
In the Ottoman Empire, castration involved “the removal of the penis and the testicles, the removal of the testicles alone, or the removal of the penis alone,” with the first method preferred. Once a man was castrated, he entered the service of a lesser noble where he learned Turkish as well as the laws and tenets of Islam. Once a eunuch was taken into the royal court, he could slowly work his way through the hierarchy of eunuchs until a cherished position as a harem guard opened up. Harem guards were always at the ready, guarding the doors of the imperial harem at Topkapi Palace.
Black eunuchs acquired power and influence within the Ottoman Empire, and 70 Africans became known by the title “Chief Black Eunuch” by the 18th century. There was a relatively high turnover rate, however, as eunuchs were replaced when a new sultan came to power.
Ethiopians May Have Castrated Italian Soldiers In The Late 19th Century
Italy claimed Eritrea during the late 19th century and tried to establish itself as a protectorate over Ethiopia in 1889. Ethiopia, determined to resist the Italians, gathered between 100,000 and 200,000 troops to fight against a much smaller Italian force that numbered between 14,000 and 18,000 at the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1886. Italy, with insufficient supplies and a failure to appreciate the strength of the Ethiopians, suffered a humiliating and shocking defeat.
As many as 6,000 Italians were killed at the battle, with 3,000 to 4,000 additional men taken captive. Many of the prisoners, according to some historians, were castrated by their Ethiopian captors. Other scholars dispute this idea, however.
Southeastern Tributary States Sent Eunuchs To China
After the Chinese overthrew the Mongols in 1368, they reasserted dominance throughout southeastern Asia in a series of military conquests and diplomatic exchanges. Countries like Cambodia, Korea, and Siam sent tributary emissaries, often eunuchs, to China with luxury items and young castrated servants.
For example, when Siam sent a tribute to China in 1383, it included “30 elephants, various native products, and 61 servants.” These areas similarly adopted eunuchism in their own courts as they were heavily influenced by China.
Medieval Law Castrated Pederasts And Rapists
A wide range of offenses during the medieval period called for castration as a punishment, and generally they involved sex. The lex talionis was also common, so castration was an appropriate punishment for sexual assault. Some Germanic laws allowed men to castrate men they found with their wives.
During the reign of King Alfred in England (849-901), peasants who committed sexual assault were castrated. Under seventh-century Visigothic kings, pederasts were castrated, a punishment instituted by Justinian in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century.
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