• Weird History

How The Catholic Church Castrated Young Boys And Made Them Sing

The castrati of 16th-century Rome – singers known for their angelic, falsetto voices equivalent to those of sopranos – were often the most celebrated in the chorus. While their voices were beautiful, the male singers designated as castrati earned their title through a disturbing ritual; these chosen young men were castrated before puberty so they would never reach sexual maturity.

When the Pope banned women from public singing in the mid-16th century, opera itself was seemingly threatened. Young boys filled in for a time, but boys' voices naturally dropped when they reached puberty. To remedy this alleged issue, the Romans resorted to body modification. These Italian singers left a dark legacy in their wake: adults trapped in prepubescent bodies. While castrati singers no longer exist, the disturbing tale of their origin – as well as the late date at which the practice was still enforced – remains. 

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  • Women Had Affairs With Female-Passing Castrati

    English women were unusually fond of the easily female-passing Italian castrati. Women involved with castrati would invite them to parties – appearing as a woman – and would engage in sexual affairs in spite of their watching husbands nearby.

    Although the young men were normally forbidden to marry by the Church, they would occasionally receive special legal dispensation. Some even resorted to sex work to make some extra money, servicing both male and female clients. 

  • They Were Known To Be "Divas"

    Castrati were not only infamous for their eroticism, but also tempers, tantrums, and insufferable vanity. Regarded as highly emotional and excessive, they often engaged in catty in-fighting with other performers and friends. They were groomed for the stage, including all its drama and mercurial temperament.

    Despite the massive numbers of young boys who were subjected to this type of castration, only a handful actually succeeded in their assigned careers. These chosen few lived in luxury, touring the great opera houses of Europe from Madrid to Moscow, commanding fabulous fees, and bringing both male and female admirers to their knees.

  • Castration Was Dangerous, Painful, And Performed With No Anesthesia

    Modern science proves castration restricts the formation of testosterone in the male body and allows the male voice to grow about 63 percent longer than before the procedure. This natural process also caused the thyroid to thicken over time, creating the quintessential manly trait known as the "Adam's apple." Autopsies performed on castrati after death proved the dimensions of their vocal cords were equivalent to those a female soprano.

    When the use of Italian castrati was popular, there was no anesthesia, meaning boys were either numbed with ice or forced into a comatose state by a surgeon's assistant pressing on their carotid artery. The penis and testicles were not actually amputated, but rather the vas deferens in the scrotum were cut, and the testicles would essentially shrivel and disappear. Not only was the procedure itself extremely painful, castration of this kind left lifelong physical and emotional scars.

  • 'Voluntary' Castration Dates Back To The Ninth Century

    Although the Italian castrati are the most prominent example of voluntary castration, the procedure dates back to ancient Sumeria where it was used to enslave and punish men. Eunuch singers similar to those in Medieval Rome are believed to have existed in the early days of the Byzantine Empire around 400 AD to sing in choirs and entertain the public. They became increasingly popular in the 9th century until they all but disappeared in the early 1200s amid the sack of Constantinople during the Crusades. The practice of castrating young boys to heighten their vocal ranges essentially vanished until the practice was adopted in Italy some 300 years later. 

    Soldiers in imperial China also engaged in voluntary castration, but not for vocal purposes. Before signing up for service, soldiers in 17th century China were castrated and employed to serve the emperor.