23 June 2011

Eunuchs in the Cage

I’ve just read about female eunuchs. Not Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch, literal female eunuchs. Now, male eunuchs are well known, and it’s an operation which is relatively easy to perform (either with retention of the penis, or not). However, when the operation was commonplace, operative mortality was very high. The story of the female eunuch goes like this.
The Ottoman Sultans’ successor usually dispatched his brothers (strictly, half-brothers) as quickly as possible when he inherited the throne. It may seem brutal, but it worked. The new Sultan then had no rivals.
In the early 17th century, Achmet I changed this. Instead of dispatch, potential rivals and claimants were sent to the ‘Cage’, a small building within the Harem. They were incarcerated there, sometimes for decades. They had a few women to keep them company.
These women had the services of the court physicians, and given contraceptive advice and potions, pessaries and the like. Then I read that they ‘were usually rendered sterile by removal of the ovaries’.
No, I don’t think so. Firstly, at this time the function of the ovaries was unknown. Conception, it was thought, came entirely from the male essence, the female acted merely as an incubator.
And secondly, removal of the ovaries requires a major abdominal operation, one that would have been impossible without anaesthesia. And there wasn’t any any anaesthesia then. 
Female eunuchs simply could not have happened then. Not.

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