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Roman Catholic Church

Roman Catholic policies on castratism:
castrated choir boys, ~1500 to 1903

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Sponsored link.

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Quotations:

bullet"Isn't it incredibly sad and pathetic that the society Alessandro [Moreschi] was born into (and all the castintos) was soooooo male dominated (and female phobic) that it would castrate their own male children rather than allow a naturally occurring female voice breech 'their' domain? Who's to say that his own mature (intact) male voice, with all the training he had, wouldn't have been magnificent. Once the child (and they were children) was castrated, what choice did he have? The society settled for a poor imitation of a woman's voice, when their was no need." Denise D., reviewer on Archive.org referring to a recording by Alessandro Moreschi, a singer at the Sistine Chapel, made in 1904. 1,2
bullet"It makes your flesh creep to think that this could have happened in the name of art. Put in context though, with eunuchs, tail docking for dogs and genital mutilation, it shows that we humans have a fairly unique knack for extreme cruelty based simply on tradition. Steve Brereton. 3

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Overview:

A castrato is a male singer with a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto voice. From about 1550 CE to the late 19th century, most were created by castrating boys before they reaching puberty. This prevented their vocal cords from lengthening and their voice from deepening. With the lung capacity and muscular strength of an adult male and the vocal range of a prepubescent boy:

"... his voice develops a range, power and flexibility quite different from the singing voice of the adult female, but also markedly different from the higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male. Some castratos were males who were born with an endoctrinological condition that prevented them from sexually maturing."

"The term castrato was often used to indicate the high register created by the young men who sang the castrato style. The typical register of a castrato was above that of a 'normal' soprano or alto voice, resulting in the creation of a temporary range in Italian music." 4

In Italy, where most of the castrations occurred, boys were generally drugged with opium. They were soaked in a hot tub until barely conscious before the operation. 5 One source estimates that the fatality rate due to the amputation procedure was about 80%. 6 Another estimates a death rate of 10 to 80% depending upon the skill of the practitioner. 7 Among the survivors, the vast majority did not become professional singers because their voice was not of sufficiently high quality.

J.S. Jenkins writes:

"Boys were castrated between the ages of 7 and 9 years, and underwent a long period of voice training. A small number became international opera stars, of whom the most famous was Farinelli, whose voice ranged over three octaves. By the end of the 18th century, fashions in opera had changed so that the castrati declined except in the Vatican, where the Sistine Chapel continued to employ castrati until 1903. The last of the castrati was Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1924 and made gramophone recordings that provide the only direct evidence of a castrato's singing voice." 8

Obviously, all of the boys who were castrated were not sufficiently mature to give their informed consent.

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History:

The European practice of employing castrated boys in the Catholic church's choirs started in the mid 16th century. Castrati were first used during:

bulletLate 1550s in the chapel choir of the Duke of Ferrara.
bullet1574 in the court chapel at Munich, Germany.
bullet1599 in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
bullet1610 in Württemberg, Germany.
bullet1637 in Vienna, Austria.
bullet1640's in Dresden, Germany. 4

Pope Sixtus V issued a papal Bull in 1589 which approved the recruitment of castrati for the choir of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Castrati were later widely employed by opera companies.

According to Wikipedia:

"The practice reached its peak in 17th and 18th century opera. In Naples it is said that several barbershops had a sign that castration was performed there. However, this cannot be confirmed. The male heroic lead would often be written for a castrato singer (in the operas of Handel for example). When such operas are performed today, a woman (possibly cross-dressing as a man in a so-called trouser role) or a countertenor takes these roles. However, some Baroque operas with parts for castrati are so complex and difficult that they cannot be performed today."

"Castration was by no means a guarantee of a promising career. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, only approximately 1% of fully or partially castrated boys developed into successful singers."

"Probably the most famous castrato was the 18th century singer Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli. In 1994, a film was made about him, Farinelli Il Castrato. In the 17th century, Queen Christina of Sweden was so enamored of the voices of the castrati that she temporarily halted a war between her country and Poland so that she could borrow the castrato Ferri from the Polish king for a two-week command performance." 4

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The Catholic Church's position on castrati:

According to Rotten.com, in the late 16th century,

"Pope Clement VIII became smitten with the sweetness and flexibility of their voices. ... While some Church officials suggested it would be preferable to lift the ban on women singers than to continue endorsing the castration of little boys, the Pope disagreed, quoting Saint Paul, 'Let women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted to them to speak.' ... since it was illegal to perform castrations, ... all castrati presenting themselves for the choir claimed to have lost their genitals through tragic 'accident'."

"After the Pope’s official acknowledgement and acceptance of castrati, the number of these "accidents" increased dramatically. Parents seeking upward mobility towed their little lads down to a barber or butcher who separated them from their testicles for a fee. 5

One source estimates that, during the 17th and 18th centuries, three to five thousand boys per year in Italy were castrated . Castration was forbidden under canon law. The church condemned the practice and occasionally excommunicated the person responsible for the surgery. 6 But the church simultaneously created a market for castrati by hiring them for its church choirs. By about 1789, there were more than 200 castrati in Rome's chapel choirs alone. 7

The number of castrati declined during the 19th century. In 1870, castrations were banned in the Papal States -- the last political jurisdiction to do so. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII prohibited the hiring of new castrati by the church. 10 By 1900 there were only 16 castrati singing in the Sistine Chapel and other Catholic choirs in Europe. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII ruled that new castrati would not be admitted to the Sistine Chapel. 7 In 1903, Pope Pius X formally banned adult male sopranos from the Vatican. 9 The Church's last castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. 9

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The castrati and 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy in the Bible:

Part of the market for castrati was due to the apostle Paul's famous dictum "Mulier taceat in ecclesia" (women are to be silent in church). This instruction is found in two passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

bulletI Corinthians 14:34-35: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. 11
bulletI Timothy 2:11-12: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

Until the 17th century, the Catholic church interpreted these passages literally. Women were prohibited from speaking or singing in church. 10 Castrati, were the obvious replacement.

These passages are largely rejected by religious liberals today. One theologian suggests that  verses 34b to 36 in 1 Corinthians 14 are a crude forgery. If they are simply deleted, the chapter flows smoothly from verse 34a to 37. More info. Many liberal Christians believe that 1 Timothy is a forgery and is written circa 100 to 150 CE, up to 85 years after Paul's execution. This text refers shows how the second century church reinstated the oppression of women --- in opposition to the teachings of Paul. More info.

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The castrati and Matthew 19 in the Bible:

The author of the Gospel of Matthew describes a conversation by Jesus to his disciples in which he bans divorce, except in those instances where the wife commits a sexual indiscretion. The disciples respond:

bulletMatthew 19:10: "His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry."

Jesus responds:

bulletMatthew 19:11-12: "But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." 11

Origen (c. 185 - c 254 CE), an early church father from the Alexandrian school, interpreted this passage literally and allegedly castrated himself "for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Some Catholic church leaders, centuries ago, interpreted the same passage as providing justification for the use of castrati so that they could contribute their powerful singing ability to church choirs.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare the above report in the year 2000, and update it since. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Denise D., review of "Alessandro Moreschi: Ave Maria," Internet Archive, 2006-JUL-12, at: http://www.archive.org/
  2. "Alessandro Moreschi: Ave Maria," 1904 recording, Internet Archive, downloadable from: Internet Archive
  3. Steve Brereton, review of Sean Coughlan, "Singing in the pain," BBC News Magazine, 2006-MAR-29, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/ This article contains photographs of "castratori" -- instruments for castrating males. Only for the strong of stomach.
  4. "Castrato," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. "Eunuchs," rotten dot com, at: http://www.rotten.com/
  6. "When castration was normal: If it's not Baroque, don't fix it," RadixNet, at: http://www.radix.net/
  7. "When castration was accepted," Intactivism Pages, at: http://www.circumstitions.com/
  8. J.S. Jenkins, "The lost voice: a history of the castrato," Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2000;13 Suppl 6:1503-8. Abstract at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
  9. "History - Castrati," Radoxnet, at: http://www.radix.net/
  10. Alexia O'Neil, "Sex Trivia," ErosZine, at: http://www.eros-lasvegas.com/
  11. Quoted from the King James version of the Bible.

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Books on the castrati:

Patrick Barbier's book "The world of the castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon" is rated of 4.5 out of 5 stars by Amazon.com buyers.  Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

Other books in the Amazon.com data base are:

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-07
Latest update: 2007-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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