Tag Archive: Voltaire

Hippocrates thought that the foetus was the result of the mixture of masculine and feminine semen which came from the brain.

As unbelievable as it seems, Humanity imagined up until the middle of the XVIIth Century that children were made either according to Aristotle’s description, or that of Hippocrates.

For the greatest doctor of Antiquity, the foetus is quite simply the result of a mixture of male and female semen.  The female, like the male, distills a semen which comes from all parts of her body, but most particularly from the brain.  According to Hippocrates, this explains the delicious sensations that are felt in all of the organs during copulation.

Unlike Hippocrates, the phallocratic Aristotle considers that the liqueur dispensed by the woman during copulation is deprived of any essence of life.  The role of the woman in the penetration is therefore reduced to supplying menstrual blood which, in coagulating, will serve as food for the foetus, while her abdomen will supply a lodging for the embryo placed there by the man.  That she is only “assuring shelter and food”  for the little human, as Pierre Darmon puts it.

Rene Descartes wrote a Traite de l’Homme et de la Formation de Foetus that is a model of obscurantism.  He takes literally the ideas emitted just two thousand years before him.  He writes:

“The foetus is, at the origin, only a confused mixture of two liqueurs that heat and dilate each other, by this means disposing themselves to form members, beginning by making a heart by boiling [bouillonnement].”

This French rationalist also thinks that, in any case, it is the man who contains the foetus, and the role of the woman is totally secondary.  A bit like a vivandiere when the army of males has won the battle…

The germ, however, takes its own life from the ether, from the spirit or spirits that float in the air…  And this is why the imagination of pregnant women, connected to the floating spirits, is able to transform the child that they are carrying…

In the heart of the XVIIIth Century, the Century of Light, right on the eve of the French Revolution, appears a treatise by Benjamin Bablot on the power of the imagination of pregnant women.  Like a lot of other doctors, Bablot upholds that if a pregnant woman touches a cat, a mouse or a weasel, she must very quickly wipe her hand to avoid the foetus taking on the form of the animal in question.

Swammerdam, although a naturalist and a physiologist of great talent, recounts with unperturbable seriousness that, around 1660, a pregnant woman was frightened by the sight of a “nigger”.  She rushed to her bathroom to wash herself with very hot water and, thanks to this wise precaution, the child was born white.  Alas!…  the creases in its hands and feet, that the water had not been able to reach, were all black…

In the XVIIIth Century, it was starting to be said that women carried eggs from which children were born.

It is only at the end of the XVIIth Century that the great anatomist Reinier de Graaf emits the hypothesis that women could well carry their own semen in the form of eggs.  In his Nouveau Traite des organes genitaux de la femme, he formulates, to the great scandal of one part of his contemporaries, the following daring hypothesis:

“I claim that all animals, and even Man, originate in an egg, not an egg formed in the matrix by the semen, in Aristotle thinking, or by seminal virtue, following Harvey, but from an egg which exists before the copulation in the testicles of the females.”

So women carry eggs…  They are like hens?…  Voltaire, who remains dry on the mysteries of generation, resorts to irony, that is to say, however he can.

“Woman is only a white hen in Europe, and a black hen in Africa!…”

Already marked by the disrepect of the new ideas, the ovist thesis had been raising reserves of a totally different order, a few years before.

“It’s contrary to the Scriptures”,

the whole of the world of believers had then protested.

Doctor Pierre Roussel, who is on the side of the Hippocrates thesis, finds that ovism offends the dignity of women, and the theologians chime in to say that if ever anyone discovers eggs in his wife’s ovaries, it could only be the result of a prodigy of Satan.

Eggs?  This is badly digested food, says a scholar of this epoch, while another estimes that this thesis is too favourable to women, which is totally insupportable.  Others, on the other hand, are enthusiastic about the egg thesis.  A Brest doctor swears in 1684 that he has just seen a woman who is seven months pregnant give birth to a big serving dish of eggs.

“I saw some too”,

affirms Doctor de Houppeville in a brochure that appears in Rouen at the same epoch.

“But it’s the devil to get them out without breaking them…  particularly with virgins!…”


To be continued.


Louis XV.

The King made a lot of enemies over the course of the last ten years of his reign.  The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1763, gave him the inimity of the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Christophe de Beaumont.  Chancellor Maupeou’s reform had abolished the venality of parliamentary charges, and put in place a magistrature now deprived of political powers:  this had mobilised public opinion against the sovereign.  The Counsellors in Parliament had been tricking the People for a long time.  They had been passing themselves off as defenders of public liberties while, in fact, they were only interested in preserving their own privileges.

However, although the King counted numerous enemies in 1774, it is quite inexact to claim that he was the object of general unpopularity.  At the end of a long reign, he was no longer the “Beloved” [Bien-Aime] of old, but the noisy agitation of the Court and the capital did not show the true state of public opinion at this moment.

Louis XV giving peace to Europe in 1729.

Up until then, the sovereign had shown himself to be of solid good health and, right at the beginning of his illness, nothing could lead anyone to suppose that he was about to die.  In 1721, fifty years earlier, a simple blood-letting had put an end to a worrying fever and, in October 1728, at Fontainebleau, the young King had been affected with a rash without consequences, precisely the one that made him think that he had already confronted smallpox.  In fact, it was just a simple chicken pox.  The “Metz illness” of August 1744 had been much more spectacular.  The King was then thirty-four.  Suffering from a high temperature, submitted to five blood-lettings, he had then appeared to be dangerously ill, at the moment when he was hurrying to the kingdom’s borders, which were being threatened by an Austrian invasion.  This episode is important for, although the illness was probably only a bad insolation, the King still received the Last Rites and, for this, had been obliged to send away his favourite of the moment, the Duchess de Chateauroux.  This precedent is going to weigh heavily on the ten days of the royal agony, thirty years later.

At this time, Louis XV had known no other particularly serious health problems but he had seen a lot of people around him die.  Of the ten children given to him by Marie Leszczynska, only four daughters had survived, the Mesdames Tantes” [My Lady Aunts] of the Court of Louis XVI, Marie-Adelaide, Marie-Victoire, Sophie and Louise-Marie.  Three children died between the ages of three and eight, which was relatively banal at this epoch, but three others disappeared as adults, Anne-Henriette at twenty-five, in 1752, her twin sister Louise-Elisabeth, the wife of the Infant Philippe of Parme, seven years later, then the Dauphin Louis (the father of the future Louis XVI) in 1765, two years before his mother, Marie Leszczynska.  In 1770, Monsignor Christophe de Beaumont took malicious pleasure in coming in person to announce to the King the entry into Carmel of Louise-Marie, the youngest of his daughters, which plunged Louis XV into immense sadness. “Dead to the world”, she would never again see her father, even in his last moments.  These multiple dramas engendered deep melancholy in the sovereign.  In this context, the presence of Madame du Barry is more comforting than libertine for this aged sovereign.  The sudden death, in front of him, of the Marquis de Chauvelin, struck down by an attack of apoplexia during a game of whist, in November 1773, had increased the ageing monarch’s anxiety about the perspective of a possible death in the near future, like any other man of his age.  Chauvelin had not had time to make his confession;  the fear of a similar death tormented the sovereign throughout the months which preceded “the declaration of smallpox”.


As soon as the sovereign’s illness is made public, the courtisan manoeuvres begin, each clan advancing its pawns in function of its interests, while calculating the patient’s chances for survival.  At the same time, lampoons and pamphlets circulate, heaping blame on the King, that adversary of Parliaments and Jesuits.  In Versailles, the doctors busy themselves at their patient’s bedside but their helplessness is total;  they are reduced to letting the illness evolve, knowing that it can end just as well in a cure as in death.

It is well known how the illness reached the King.  A few days before the King, the Countess de Provence had contracted the illness, as well as the Chancellor of Spain who did not survive.  In his Journal, the Duke de Croy gives precisions:

“Rumours were spread about how he had caught this illness, but the fact is that a few children had had it in the Trianon neighbourhood, and that a little girl of two died from it in an attic, at the end of the park, and was taken away at night, in a sheet;  […]  which spread the venom in the gardens, where he often went.  Louis XV therefore seems to have caught his disease in the beautiful greenhouses and the botanical garden.”

Voltaire reports that the King had contracted the disease by approaching the coffin of a young girl who had died of smallpox, whose funeral procession he had passed, while leaving for a hunt.  Two days later, the monarch’s dentist is supposed to have noticed suspicious symptoms on his gums.  The hypothesis of the author of the Dictionnaire philosophique cannot however be retained, for the episode that he evokes took place only a few days before the disease’s appearance, while the incubation period lasts two weeks.

Malevolent minds ironise about this “small pox” which comes to complete the action of the “big pox” [syphilis] abusively bestowed upon the King through a life judged to be dissolute.  It is even suspected that the sovereign had, at the instigation of the shameful favourite, put into his bed a little girl suffering, without anyone knowing it, from the sinister smallpox.  So many interpretations, all as malevolent as they are unfounded – but nevertheless regularly brought up again – which go to add to the King’s black legend.  Seven years after the King’s death, Moufle d’Angerville takes up this theme again in his Vie privee de Louis XV, which is a simple collection of rumours and calumnies:

“Following this blind fatality which plays with men’s vain projects and often confounds the greatest wisdom, even the efforts of these corruptors [Mme du Barry’s partisans] to perpetuate their empire, turned against them, and France was saved…”

To be continued.

Jacques Cazotte

One evening in January 1788, Prince de Beauvau had invited to dinner a certain number of people in view at the French Court and around Paris.  Among others, there were Chamfort, Condorcet, La Harpe, the Duchess de Gramont, a few ladies of wit and literary people, filled with an exaggerated sense of their own importance.  They professed some advanced impious ideas and, rather curiously, did their best to destroy the society to which they all owed their privileges…

The meal, washed down with Malvoisie and Constance wines, was extremely lively.  At dessert, Chamfort read a few of his libertine stories starring gallant abbots.  Then jokes were made about religion, and one guest raised his glass to the non-existence of God and claimed that Homer was stupid.  He was applauded.

Soon, the conversation turned to Voltaire and the change he had made in people’s thinking.  Someone said that he had set the tone of his century and extended his influence from the Court to the little people…  Another agreed that irreligion was full of his followers, and quoted his own hairdresser who, while powdering his hair, had said:

“You see, Sir, although I am only a poor hairdresser, I have no more religion than another…”

This made everyone laugh, and Mr de Beauvau said that superstition and fanaticism would soon be replaced by Philosophy and the Reign of Reason.  Although, in his opinion, it would take a lot more time to free people’s minds, and he thought that those present would not live to see this Revolution.

Then, a guest who had not participated in the discussion, spoke:

“Messieurs, be satisfied.  You will all see this great and sublime Revolution that you so desire.  You know that I am a bit of a prophet.  I repeat:  you will see it…”

This person, who had just spoken in such a serious tone, was Jacques Cazotte.  He was the author of a strange book:  Le Diable amoureux, which had caused a stir;  but he was taken for a dreamer and some suspected him of belonging to the sect of the Illumines.

All of the table companions turned to him with big smiles on their faces.  Chamfort proposed a toast to this good news.  Cazotte joined them in their toast, then asked if they knew what would happen after this Revolution, and where they would all be, and what would be the immediate follow-up to it.  Condorcet laughed and said that he was willing to listen to him because a philosopher is happy to meet a prophet.  Cazotte’s eyes shone.  He said:

“You, Monsieur de Condorcet, will die on the stones of a prison cell;  you will die from the poison that you will have taken to escape the executioner.  From the poison that the “happiness” of those times will force you to always carry on your person…”

All the guests burst out laughing.  Condorcet wants to know what the prison cell, the poison and the executioner have to do with Philosophy and the Reign of Reason.  Cazotte says:

“It’s very simple.  It is in the name of Philosophy, of Humanity, of Liberty and under the Reign of Reason that you will finish like that…  Because, at this time, Reason will have its own temples, and the only temples in France, at this time, will be temples of Reason…”

Chamfort laughs and says that he is sure that Cazotte will not be one of the priests in those temples.  Cazotte replies that he hopes not;

“But you, Monsieur de Chamfort, who will be one of them, and very dignified about it, you will cut open your veins with twenty-two razor slashes and will die some little time later…”

Everyone laughs even louder than before.  But Cazotte is already pointing to someone else:

“You, Monsieur de Vicq d’Azyr, will not open your veins yourself;  but, after having had them opened for you, six times in one day, to be sure of succeeding, you will die that night…”

The diners were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.  A few people were still laughing, but rather nervously.  Cazotte continued going round the table:

“You, Monsieur de Nicolai, will die on the scaffold…  You, too, Monsieur Bailly, on the scaffold.”

Roucher has noticed that all of the people mentioned so far are members of the Academie.  He says that he is glad that he is not a member, himself.  Cazotte tells him that he, too, will die on the scaffold.  Someone wants to know whether it is because they will have been invaded by the Turks or the Tartars.  Cazotte says:

“Not at all.  I told you:  you will then be governed only by Philosophy and Reason.  Those who will treat you like that will all be philosophers;  they will have in their mouths the phrases that you have been speaking for the last hour, and will repeat all of your maxims…”

Chamfort laughingly wants to know when all of this is supposed to take place.  Cazotte answers:

“Six years will not have passed before all that I have said will be accomplished.”

La Harpe wants to know what will happen to him.  Cazotte replies:

“You will benefit from a miracle at least as extraordinary as all of these events:  at this time, you will be a Christian.”

Chamfort declares himself to be reassured.  He proclaims that if they are all to die only when La Harpe becomes a Christian, they are all immortal.  The Duchess de Gramont is relieved that the ladies have nothing to fear.  Cazotte tells her:

“You will be taken to the scaffold, along with a lot of other ladies, in the executioner’s cart, with your hands tied behind your back.”

The Duchess hopes that she will at least have a carriage draped in black.  Cazotte announces that greater ladies than herself will be taken in the cart with their hands tied behind their backs.  The Duchess asks if he means the Royal Princesses.  Cazotte says that he means even greater ladies.

To be continued.

Casanova – part 6

Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo writes on the frontispiece of his Memoires, the Latin words:  “Fata viam inveniunt”  [“Destiny finds its way”].  For him, destiny ends amongst the 40,000 books of a faraway Bohemian castle.  Right to the end, he will have protectors who appreciate his way with words, his culture and his spells.  The sweetness of a few former mistresses who have not forgotten and will write to him, too.

And, he will remember.  His will be the most prodigious of stories.  Relatively recent work has shown the authenticity of certain details which had previously been contested, and everyone agrees that the Memoires are a capital piece in the decisive comprehension of the History of men.

So, was Casanova a fiction writer, an historian, or a magician?  He was probably all of these things, and more.  He was a friend, a companion, and a magician who only really becomes one at the end of his Memoires; “a magician from the other side of the grave” as G. Bauer puts it.


Is his story true?  Casanova has had a lot written about him, and all of his biographers have been careful to verify the things that he says.  In all of the Chancelleries of Europe, and in a number of public and private archives, there is an almost unending mass of documents concerning the Venitian’s life.  A lot of these documents have been compiled and examined very closely.  There are very few flagrant inexactitudes or inventions.  There are a few exaggerations, some errors in dates, and some “embellishments”, which are compatible with the romanesque nature of the hero.


There are fervent Casanovians who place their hero’s literary accomplishments above those of Stendhal.  Stefan Zweig, the admirable biographer of Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, says of the Venitian that he is “an unique success in universal literature, who has surpassed all of the great Italian writers, since Dante and Boccace…”  His admirers have given this place to Casanova because of his gift for evoking life and imposing on the reader, whatever his degree of culture, a sort of irresistible presence, which is truly magic.

Written in French, the Memoires alone would have been sufficient for his renown.  But he also wrote a lot of other works, notably the troubling Icosameron or Histoire d’Edouard et d’Elisabeth qui passerent quatre-vingt-un ans chez les Megamicres, habitants aborigenes du Protocosme dans l’interieur de notre globe.  This enormous book is much more difficult to understand than the Memoires.  It is a synthesis of Jules Verne, of Robida, and of Wells, and is in all points a successful ancestor of our science-fiction books.  Above all, it shows the author’s very serious and wide knowledge of the state of science at his epoch.


Casanova cites around one hundred and twenty-two feminine conquests in thirty-nine years.  This is not at all exaggerated for a man of his physique and intelligence.  Without counting his celebrity, which facilitated his enterprises.  It is certain that his conquests would have been even more numerous if he hadn’t often been so fussy.  He did sometimes jump at the first one to pass, but in a lot of cases, he took senseless risks to conquer a woman.  He went as far as financial ruin, and used gentleness, gallantry and perseverance, which are completely unknown to today’s seductors.


Casanova was born into a family of artists, and will never deny his origins.  He pretended to be the son of Michel Grimani to venge himself for an insult inflicted on him by this Venitian patrician.  That his younger brother, Francois, was the bastard of George III seems just as contestable.  At least, we have no proof of this illustrious paternity.  The Casanovas were born poor, and Giacomo will die poor.


At 15, Casanova took one of the few paths that an adolescent with no money, no nobility and no protector could take:  that of ecclesiastic.  He took to the pulpit in his native parish of Saint-Samuel in Venice.  He was a success, and the curate asked him to do a panegyric for the festival of Saint Joseph, on 19 March 1741.  Too confident, he prepared the grand lines of his sermon, and thought he could improvise it.  He had a good meal, washed down with copious quantities of wine, just before mounting to the pulpit, and of course rapidly lost track of what he was saying.  The church was packed, and the faithful started to laugh, or to leave.  Casanova did the only thing left to do:  he pretended to faint.


He also studied Law.  Everyone said that he had almost universal culture.  The Prince de Ligne, who was certainly not naive, assures us that he was “a well of science”.  The greatest monarchs of the century, Catherine II, Frederic of Prussia, the King of Poland, ask him for advice, or for information.  Voltaire houses him for three days, and revises in depth some of his views on Italian literature.

The reason that he didn’t continue with Law after his doctorate, was because there were already too many lawyers (around 250 of them) in Venice, most of whom had trouble making a living.  His taste for women and his frankness were too pronounced for him to hope for a career in the Church.  As for the sabre, he tried, but in spite of the dispositions which he showed, when it came time for a promotion, a young patrician was preferred over him.

The only other thing that he could do to make money rapidly was to gamble.  He tried, and failed.  So, he was reduced to “begging” in an improvised orchestra.


Casanova only has some success when he meets his first protector.  He is in the palace of the very rich Giovanni Bragadin.  The doctor who is caring for him leaves in the middle of the night, and two very alarmed friends, the nobles Dandolo and Barbero, arrive.  They try to get rid of him.  He refuses to leave.  He says that, if he leaves, Bragadin won’t recover.  He is right.  Using only his good sense and a bit of experience gleaned in military hospitals, he removes the cataplasm which is suffocating the patient.

To be continued.

Louis XV dies of smallpox on 10 May 1774.  This terrible illness leaves in its wake a halo of terror and suspicion.  A medical book which appears that year affirms that it is “the most general of all”.  Ninety-five people out of every hundred in France contract it.  One in seven dies from it.

Care is taken to avoid the people who frequented the King during his illness.  For this reason, the young successor cannot even consult the ministers who advised his grandfather, right at his bedside.  Louis-Auguste, as well as his two brothers, rapidly decide – in spite of the reprobation of the court elders – to have themselves innoculated.

During the few days which follow the operation, France lives in fear.  Everyone waits for news of the King, who is suffering fever and discomfort.  But, rapidly, the menace disappears and the people forgets its fear and praises the audacity of the Children of France.  Voltaire says:

“History will not forget that the King, the Count of Provence and the Count of Artois, all three very young, taught the French, by being innoculated, that you must face danger to avoid death.  The nation was touched and instructed.”

So, one by one, all those who had guided the steps of the future King Louis XVI left the scene, leaving him alone to assume the heavy burden which incumbs to the heir to the French Crown.  To complete this sad picture, we must also note the disappearance of his governor Mr de La Vauguyon, in 1772, followed several years later by that of Abbot Soldini, his confessor.


On 11 June 1775, during the Festival of the Trinity, the King is consecrated at Reims.  He struggles a bit under the thirty square feet of his heavy mantel, even though it is raised by the Grand Ecuyer.  He had murmured when hearing of the death of his grandfather, Louis XV:

“My God, protect us, we are too young to reign.”

The prophecy of the Austrian Empress comes true, and he can’t escape it.  The unctions of the holy oil open wide the doors of the kingdom to him…

The 6 August is a great day for the royal family.  A beautiful child is born.  But the mother is the Countess of Artois and the King is “still at the same point” according to Marie-Antoinette’s own expression.  The unhappy wife is unable to conceal her chagrin “to see an heir [born] which is not from her”.  At the announcement of his sister-in-law’s pregnancy, Louis XVI again consults a doctor.  We learn from a letter sent by Marie-Antoinette to Marie-Therese that this doctor says

“just about the same as the others that the operation was not necessary and that there was every hope without it”.

To resume, there was every reason to hope… and every reason not to hope, for time was passing and age was advancing.  Inside and out, in the salons and in the corridors, mocking words were starting to be heard.

“Each asks quietly:/Can the King?  Or can’t He?/The sad Queen desperately tra la la, tra la lee.”

Tired of these songs, the Dauphine finally obtains from her husband the promise that

“if nothing has been decided in the next few months, he will decide, himself, on the operation”…

In the Spring, Joseph II visits Marie-Antoinette.  The Emperor comes to give advice to his sister… and to get his own idea of the King.  He reports to his brother Leopold:

“This man is rather weak, but not stupid;  he has notions, he has judgement, but there is an apathy of body and mind.”

After her brother’s visit, Marie-Antoinette tries to get closer to her husband.  And at last, the miracle happens.  On 30 August 1777 – seven years after their marriage – she announces to her mother the news that all Europe awaits:

“I am in the most essential happiness of my whole life.  My marriage has been perfectly consummated for more than a week;  the proof has been reiterated, and again yesterday more completely than the first time.”

A few months later, the Dauphine, with great joy, declares to her husband jokingly:

“I come, Sire, to complain about one of your subjects who is so audacious as to give me kicks in the stomach…”

On 19 December 1778, a girl is born.  Louis XVI is at last a father – not only the father of the nation, father of twenty-seven million French – but father of a little Marie-Therese-Charlotte whom he immediately cherishes tenderly.

The news spreads rapidly throughout the kingdom.  The whole of France sinks into the intoxication of this happy event.  To show her joy, the Empress of Austria sends her daughter two vases in petrified wood, decorated with precious stones.  But these fragile objects, broken during the trip, never arrive at their destination…  Is this another omen?  In any case, the euphoria does not last long…

The King could have started to enjoy life from this day on.  But it seems that destiny decided otherwise.  Two of the three children who are born in the following years rapidly leave the land of the living, abandoning their father to the torments of History in the making.  Here and there, riots break out in the street and a dull rumour of discontentment starts to rumble.  Everywhere, oppositions are born.  The King tries to resist for a time.  But he is not prepared for an affrontment.

To be continued.

The congress was abolished by the memorable order of 18 February 1677, but trials for impotence were not.  The parties were no longer made to meet, but the visit was still ordered.

In this way, the case of the Marquis de Gesvres and of Mlle de Mascranny, his wife, was judged.

The experts found an undeniable frigidity in the husband.  How did they come to this conclusion, if they hadn’t seen him in action?

The experts chosen by the husband were Doctor Gayant and the surgeon Marechal, who declared that nothing was lacking in their client, from the point of view of conformation, but that they couldn’t affirm conjugal capacity, “not having seen any movement”.

As for the two other experts, Doctor Hecquet and the surgeon Chevalier, they recognized, too, that the conformation was good, but appearance was not sufficient, and the state should appear.

This condition filled, it was not yet sufficient.  Traces had to be seen on the wife.  This meant that the Marquise had to be visited.  But, before arriving at this point, the Marquis managed to delay things for a long time, alleging one illness, then another, and receiving no less than six visits from doctors to verify them.

The case had an unforseen epilogue.  The Marquise died before the end of the trial, thereby saving her husband’s honour.

Voltaire showed what he thought of the morality of these scandalous practices, in a sentence which resumes, in its concision, all that can be thought of them:

“These trials were just shameful for the wives, ridiculous for the husbands, and unworthy of the judges.”

Once again he has hit the nail on the head.

We complain today about the time needed to separate two people, united by legal ties, who are asking to regain their liberty because of their incompatiblity.  Our ancestors had a more expeditive justice.  In former French legislation, the tribunals had no hesitation in annulling the marriage.  Not because of incompatibility – they didn’t much care about that – but for the unique fact that one of the spouses, usually the husband, refused, or was incapable of doing, his or her part in the conjugal duo.

This sort of private debate, under the eye of Justice, might appear to have been the invention of some sadistic magistrate, whose imagination needed this stimulant to move him.  However, it was the ecclesiastic tribunals, known as officialities, which introduced this practice.

Voltaire observed with great wisdom that canonists, particularly monks, usually sexually inactive, were the ones who delved the most deeply into the mysteries of love. 

“This astonishing research has only ever been done, anywhere in the world, by theologians.  It is only in the Christian religion that the tribunals have rung with these quarrels between brazen women and shameful husbands.  Jewish law allowed the husband to repudiate whichever one of his wives displeased him, without specifying the cause…  There was never any question of impotence in Jewish law.”

It would seem that “God could not permit impotence among a sacred people who had to multiply like the sands of the sea.”.

Voltaire explains how sexual things came to penetrate the theological domain.

“Marriage having been, over a period of time, raised to the dignity of sacrement, of mystery, the ecclesiastics gradually became the judges of everything which happened between husband and wife, and even of everything which didn’t happen…  Clerics pleaded, priests judged.  But what were they judging?  Things of which they must have known nothing.”

The canonical constitutions never admitted divorce.  They recognized only the nullity of the marriage for the cause of… inutility.

Saint Thomas d’Aquin, in his Somme, admits the principle, in vigour with the Romans, that the rupture of the marriage should be pronounced propter imbecillitatem mariti.  The word “imbecillity” has a material sense here, otherwise the ecclesiastical tribunals would have been very busy.  Stupid husbands are far from constituting the majority of impotent ones.

Canonical jurisprudence was not founded on Roman tradition because Justinien refused to admit feminine impotence, while Pope Gregoire III re-established the man and the woman as equals.  This pontiff judged that there were cases when the husband had the right to ask for his liberty, if the constitution of the wife’s private parts did not allow the physical act.

The following pontiffs, such as Alexander III and Luca III, confirmed this decree.  Innocent III shared the opinion of his predecessors on this subject, and pronounced the nullity of the marriage, when the impotence of the wife was duly shown.

Using these precedents, King Louis XII asked to repudiate the daughter of Louis XI, the unfortunate Jeanne de France, so as to be able to marry the widow of Charles VIII.

The case brought by Louis XII against his wife was conducted by commissionaries named by the Pope.  And the virtuous Queen Jeanne could protest as much as she wanted that the marriage had really been consummated, she had to be submitted to the shameful visit of the matrons, because her revolting husband maintained that she was deformed from birth, and that she could neither conceive nor give birth, because of her physical conformation.

Rather than submit to a degrading expertise, the princess preferred to renounce winning the case, saying that she was “pudic and ashamed”, and that she could not be “easily exposed to such a visit, whose judgement could even be misleading”.

Jeanne’s lawyers proposed replacing the matrons’ enquiry by prayers, exorcisms and other ecclesiastical remedies, designed to chase away the demon, considered responsible for the corporal incapacity alleged by the King as being the only obstacle to the consummation of the marriage.

At this time, no-one thought to ask for the meeting of a “congress”.  It was only later, around the middle of the XVIth Century, that this new procedure would be inaugurated.

To be continued.

A Queen of Persia, seeing that a horse was being tormented, asked what was being done to it.  She was told that they wanted to castrate it.  She replied:  “Why go to all that trouble?  Give him coffee to drink.  You will arrive at the same result!”.

In 1695, a famous thesis was defended at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris.  The author proved that habitual coffee-drinking made men unable to procreate, and women to conceive.  To justify this property, attributed to coffee, of making frigid those who drink too much of it, Voltaire is cited as an example.

As we know, Voltaire used a lot of this cerebral excitant, which didn’t stop him from attaining an advanced age, but which is supposed to have considerably cooled him sexually, early in life.  This didn’t stop him from being jealous about the women he loved.  One of his biographers reports a curious conversation during which Mme du Chatelet, reminding Voltaire of his sexual insufficiency, gets him to agree to letting his friend Saint-Lambert replace him, instead of a stranger.  Voltaire accepts, and a new menage a trois is established on this day.

The same Mme du Chatelet, finding herself pregnant by Saint-Lambert, approached her husband, for a few days, to obtain at least his blessing.  “Why does she need to see her husband?” asks a mischievous wit.  “Doubtless, a pregnant lady’s craving,” answers another.

This anaphrodisiac reputation of coffee is very old.  Some authors have even called coffee potus caponum (capon liqueur).

Alcohol, which for a long time had the reputation of augmenting desire, only had this effect very fleetingly, as Fere notes:  “It diminishes resistance to perverse tendencies, which are more connected to impotence;  absence of desire soon comes.  In alcoholism, as in neurasthenia generally, sexual desire is sometimes increased for a time, but its strength is generally diminished.”

Tobacco has also been incriminated.  Doctor Le Juge of Segrais made the case against Nicot’s plant.  The tabacophobic clearly accused cigarettes of producing anaphrodisia, and he reported several facts from his medical practice in support of his claim.  In several of them, it was enough to advise the patients to stop smoking, to see their sexual desire return.  This curious property of tobacco is mentioned in a XVIth Century book whose author reports that, in America, the women abstain from using tobacco because they believe that it prevents conception and sexual desire.

Lesions of the spinal cord which directly or indirectly affect the genital centre produce this special anaesthesia, which is also observed in certain cases of lesions of the brain, notably in general progressive paralysis.  Nutrition problems can also produce it.  It can also be seen in hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy (Fere).  But it is above all in neurasthenia, or rather in neurasthenic states, that a marked diminution of sexual activity is observed.

These patients are more sensitive than others to sexual suggestion and remain inhibited.  They feel a sort of “genital fainting fit” when they are afraid of not being able to perform, either because the same thing has happened not long before, or because they are thinking too much about the act they are about to accomplish.

Tardieu has told the story of an individual who had a lot of problems arriving at the desired result, but that once, he had succeeded completely.  At the time he was in a top-floor room and had noticed a woman’s bonnet hanging to dry at a window opposite.  During the sexual act, his attention had been drawn to this bonnet, and this is what had allowed him to succeed.  Therefore, since that time, whenever he wanted to do the same thing, he took a bonnet with him and hung it up in the corner of the room.

We have seen that neurasthenia often shows its existence through sexual problems, more frequently with men than with women.  These problems consist mainly in excessive excitability, coinciding with impotence, often partial, sometimes complete, and accompanied by diverse perversions.

After this long introduction, we shall start our voyage through History next time, in the second part.

Voltaire was the first to cast serious doubt on the “biter bit” version of the death of Pope Alexander VI.  The drama appeared to be too romanesque to be true, and he takes delight in pointing out its contradictions.

After having reminded everyone that Alexander was too clever a politician to kill nine cardinals in one go, when he could space his crimes, and open these premature successions one after the other, he questions how Caesar managed to pillage the Pope’s palace, the day following the Pope’s death.  “Was he enclosed in his mule when he carried away the treasure?”

In fact, we know that he asked Michelotto Corella to go and recuperate the pontifical treasure, consisting of 200,000 ducats in gold and jewels.

Burckard, Alexander VI’s master of ceremonies, does not mention any poison in his diary.  We know that we are able to believe the authority of this German bishop who reports, without any commentary, neither praising nor blaming anyone, all of the most atrocious crimes which he had witnessed.

Michelet says:  “Burckard’s accounts have this grandiose character of truthful simplicity, which completely reassures.  I have read and seen a lot of liars.  Lying is not done like this.”  It is therefore reasonable to believe Burckard’s story.  Here is my English translation of the literal French translation of Burckard’s account.  I hope that we don’t lose too much of it in this multi-lingual process.

“On Saturday 12 August in the morning, the Pope felt ill;  the twenty-first or the twenty-second hour, the fever came and remained steady.  The 15 August, roughly thirteen ounces of blood were drawn from him, and the tertian fever came.  On Thursday 17, at midday, he took medicine.

“On Friday 18, around midday or one o’clock in the afternoon, he confessed to Peter, Bishop of Calmense, who then said Mass, and after having, himself, taken Communion, carried the sacrement of the Eucharist to the Pope, seated in his bed.  That done, he finished his Mass, in the presence also of five cardinals, …  the Pope told them that he felt very ill.  At the hour of Vespers, after he had received Extreme Unction from the Bishop of Calmense, he expired in the presence of the President of the pontifical tribunal, the abovementioned bishop, etc.”

A letter from Ambassador de Ferrare to the husband of Lucretia also confirms the thesis of a natural death.

What could have credited the poisoning version, is the appearance of Alexander VI’s body.  It “was so black, so deformed, so prodigiously swollen that it was almost unrecognizable;  a completely putrefied matter was running from his nose;  his mouth was open in such a frightful manner, that one was unable to look at it without horror, nor suffer the stink without being in danger of being infected”.

Philippe de Commines confirms the fact by saying that the body was “all blackened and fetid”.

Does this precocious putrefaction mean poison?  Popular opinion believes that the bodies of poisoned people decompose very rapidly, which is not confirmed by medical observation.  On the contrary, the bodies of those who have succumbed to arsenical intoxication decompose very slowly.

This rapid decomposition is therefore not an argument in favour of poisoning.  In addition, the death of the Pope took place on 18 August, but the first funeral Mass is said on 4 September.  In the middle of Summer, when the heat is extreme, it is not surprising that the body decomposed so rapidly.

A malaria epidemic, and several other guests also ill, credit the thesis that Alexander VI died of illness and not by poisoning.

Pontifical families usually die out through lack of descendants.  Apparently, the last Borgia died in London, at the beginning of the XXth Century.  He was a photographer.  Here is what Paul Ginisty says about it:

“Yes, the last descendant of this family, the man who still carried this redoubtable name, which remains the symbol of tyranny, of sacrilege, of murder, with demoniacal refinements, was a poor creature, who had washed up in London, where he lived with difficulty from his profession of photographer.  How very distant we are from the legend of his frightening ancestor, the atheist Pope Alexander VI, dying himself from the poison which he had so often used.  How very distant we are from these grandiose horrors, from these furious turmoils of ambition, from these fierce passions which stop at nothing, which nothing can control.

“The last of the Borgias took photos of sentimental servant girls wanting to send these images to their boyfriends, and the only order given by this fallen heir of a legion of tyrants was:  “Don’t move.”.  In the end, he whose ancestors had unscrupulously manipulated abominable philtres, was poisoned in vulgar fashion, the unfortunate bohemian, by the none-too-fresh and sophisticated food which the restaurants of big cities reserve for their modest customers. This poison of the doubtful mixtures of cheap restaurants is perhaps slower in its action, but it is no less sure than the famous poison of the Borgia family.”

No history has provoked more polemics that that of the XVIth Century papacy, particularly at the time of the Borgias.  The most violent pamphlets, the most severe condemnations, the most unbelievable panegyrics, have in turn stirred public opinion and deeply led it astray.

The Borgias are usually presented as monsters of cruelty and perfidy.  The innumerable crimes of Alexander VI caused him to be seen as an Antichrist.  There was no form of killing which they didn’t abuse.  Among the lot, poison was the most common and the most used.  But this way of sending undesirable people to another world is current in the Italian society of the XVIth Century.

Fifth part tomorrow.

It was usually in their cradles that murderous beasts strangled and killed very young children.  Sometimes the children were a little older, like the five-year-old boy killed by a sow at Savigny in 1457.

Another sow was condemned to be killed by a blow to the head for having devoured the chin of a child from the village of Charonne.   The sentence ordered that the flesh of this sow be cut up and thrown to the dogs.  The owner and his wife had to make a pilgrimage to Notre-Dame-de-Pontoise where, on the day of the Pentecost Feast, they were to cry out:  “Merci!” (This word literally means “Mercy” in French.  It is used these days to say “No, thank you” in particular, and just “Thank you” in general.)  They were to bring back a certificate to prove that they had done it.

Things did not always take place as simply as we have seen up until now.  In 1572, at Moyenmoutier, in the region of Saint-Die, a pig devoured a young child.  The animal, surprised in the act, was arrested and locked up in the prison of the abbey (moutier is an old French word for “monastery”) under the name of “pig Claudon”, from his owner’s name.

The procurer immediately began his enquiry, interrogated witnesses, who were confronted with the animal.  Then, the mayor, the municipal magistrates and other prominent people were convoked to hear the sentence which was to be read by the lawyer.  It was the death sentence for the animal.

The reading finished, the mayor, the municipal magistrates, all of the men led the pig to the stone cross and there, the mayor cried out three times:  “The Provost of Saint-Die!… ”  Religious justice, not being able to shed blood, presented the guilty one again, this time to civil justice, the Provost of Saint-Die.

It was then believed that death on the gibbet applied to an animal guilty of murder, would always inspire horror of the crime, and that the beast’s owner was sufficiently punished by the loss of his animal, for the damage caused to others.

It was not only pigs who expiated their faults on the gibbet.  Bulls, horses, donkeys were also brought to justice and condemned.

In 1499, a judgement of the bailiwick of the Abbot of Beaupre, Order of Citeaux, near Beauvais, condemned a bull which had killed a young man, to death on the gallows.

A cat was executed, on 30 March 1467, for having “strangled” (suffocated?) a child of fourteen months, in the home of Clement le Bachelier, of Longueville.  The cat was hung on the field gallows.

In 1389, a horse was condemned to death on information given by the municipal magistrates of Montbard, for having killed a man.  Bullocks and cows, wild or domestic, according to the charter known as the Eleanore Charter, drawn up in 1395, could be legally killed if they were found pilfering.

Donkeys which were guilty of the same misdeed were treated with more humanity.  They were assimilated to thieves of a higher condition.  The first time that a donkey was found in a cultivated field which was not that of its master, one of its ears was cut off.  If it did it again, its second ear was cut off.  If the misdeed was committed a third time, it was not hung like other beasts but was confiscated by the prince.

This favouritism disappeared when it was a question of homicide.  The accounts for the Provost’s jurisdiction of Dijon for the year 1405, show the payment of the sum of five francs, paid to Master Collard, the Executioner, for having taken to the Dijon gibbet and having put to death, a donkey which had killed a child.

From the year 1120 up until and including 1741, in diverse provinces of France, no fewer than ninety-three condemnations against animals guilty of homicides and damages were pronounced.

A few animals were also condemned to death for the crime of sorcery.  At Bale, a rooster accused of laying an egg, in August 1474, was handed over to the Executioner who publicly burnt it, with its egg.  At the time, sorcerers were thought to use rooster eggs, supposedly containing a serpent, for their invocations.

Voltaire reports that there was a case, in 1610, about a trained horse, like those in circuses.  The master and his horse were accused of using spells and it was debated whether or not they should both be burnt.

Ninth part tomorrow.

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