Deep Voices Then and Now

Arthur Hlavaty posted this link about the history of the castrati, and it got us to thinking about body modification for the purpose of enhancing skills.

Here’s an excellent Wikipedia article on the castrati for background. “A castrato is a male soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reach sexual maturity. Therefore, their voices never deepen.” The practice began in the mid-16th century and was not outlawed in Italy until 1870, and it almost certainly continued illegally into the 20th century. We know that many castrati were poor boys whose parents hoped that the operation would launch them to fame and fortune.

If this all sounds rather medieval and unrelated to the modern world, try comparing it to athletic use of anabolic steroids. We started doing this idly, and the comparisons we came up with are quite striking.

Both were/are practices in common usage, designed to take an initial talent and transform it into a marketable skill.

Neither works without some initial ability: castration does not transform a poor singer into a good one and steroids don’t make an unskilled athlete into a superstar.

Both hold out the promise of wealth and power to people who often have limited opportunities (as well as to people with significant opportunities).

Both work by affecting hormonal balance, including specifically the effects of testosterone on the body.

Both fail far more often than they succeed. One particularly interesting fact from the Wikipedia article is that “only approximately 1% of castrated or partially castrated boys developed into successful singers.”

Both can screw up your body: in the case of the castrati, the extremely significant risk of infection and death from any surgery in that period, especially the earlier part of it. Steroids (in men) can also cause testicular atrophy, as well as increased blood pressure and cholesterol, stunted growth, heart trouble, and increased risk of prostate cancer.

Both can screw up your life: castrati were (of course) unable to marry and have families, a significant problem in any culture and particularly strong in Europe in that period. Steroid users face “roid rage” and other mood issues; female steroid users risk sterility and the inability to have families (not as major a theme in our culture, and still an important life choice).

The castration surgery is only useful if it is done in late childhood or very early adolescence. While many athletes begin taking anabolic steroids as grown men, the practice of steroid usage among teenage athletes (male and female) is widespread and growing. Both can be supported (and sometimes controlled) by parents, and can also be driven by a significant desire/demand on the part of a child.

All of these people are/were in complicated and difficult situations. Given all the changes between the 17th and the 21st century, it’s interesting that these solutions are so similar.

<br /> <a href="" rel="tag nofollow">Body Impolitic</a><br /> castrati<br /> steroids<br /> testosterone<br /> <a href="" rel="tag nofollow">body modification</a><br /> athletics<br /> opera<br />

3 thoughts on “Deep Voices Then and Now

  1. Arthur’s URL needs a dot-com.

    The article reminded me of Smith’s “Down to a Sunless Sea.” Without the ending or the premise, of course.

    And of course the “failures” disappeared and disappear.

    What might be interesting is to tease out just why body integrity is so little valued.

  2. Arthur

    Sorry. The address is fixed.

    Rarely is an existential problem solved so easily.


    I read “Down to a Sunless Sea” a very long time ago and don’t remember anything beyond the fact that I read it.

    I think “body integrity,” like almost everything else we seem to talk about, is really complex.

    A couple of thoughts come to mind right now. One is the
    religious (Jewish and Christian) “body integrity” belief that the body must remained untouched and unmarked (no tatoos etc.).

    The other is the optimism of folks who make choices like steroids in the belief that they will both be one of the few who succeed and somehow will remain undamaged.

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