Adventures in Research

July 24, 2008 | 2 books mentioned 4 min read

Or, “About A Hedge-Whore Beggar-Woman Pretending to be Sick With Saint Fiacre’s Disease, And A Long Thick Gut Made By Trickery Came Out of Her Bum”

coverThere are times when research unearths something so unsurpassingly strange that it must be shared. Such is the case of the “Hedge-Whore.” And she is hardly the only treat of her kind to be found in Ambroise Pare’s 1573 On Monsters and Marvels (happily available in an excellent translation by Janis Pallister on Amazon!). The book is a theory of the causes of monsters (i.e. 1. Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and animals of all kinds with too many or too few eyes, wings, horns, etc.; 2. some obviously impossible and fictional creatures – a colt with a man’s face, for example; and 3. the maimed – the blind, those with wens, warts, or inverted lips), and an encyclopedia of them. Pare’s theory is fascinating because unlike widespread folk-belief in Europe well into the seventeenth century, which held that a deformed child or animal’s birth was a warning to mankind about the ugliness of sin (sin in physical form), a portend of national disaster, or an indication of a parental sin (usually adultery), Pare (a surgeon to the courts of two kings) allows for both religious and scientific explanations, and so his book embodies a time in which superstitious and scientific explanations of the world existed side by side. To Pare, if your child was born with an extra arm it could be a sign of God’s wrath, the intervention of a demon, or the mother’s unwholesome imaginings during conception, but it could also be the result of hereditary illness, damage in utero, and other “modern” diagnoses. (Of course, those of us who have spent any time on the Madonna of the Toast blog know that what I suggest to be outmoded superstition is still alive and well in our most modern of worlds.)

But to return to the Hedge Whore – who is, in fact, a fake monster. My internet researches have not yet led to a definitive definition of Saint Fiacre’s disease, but since he seems to be the patron saint of hemorrhoids, fistulas, and venereal disease, I will let this excerpt lead you to your own conclusions (although the curious might visit Ireland’s Eye as well; and more substantial information in the possession of a reader would be most welcome!). The account is one Pare had gotten from a Dr. Flecelle of Champigny:

while he was walking one day in his courtyard, a wench, very fleshy, came asking him alms in honor of Saint Fiacre, raising her petticoat and her chemise [and] showing a thick bowel, half a foot long and more, which came out of her bum, from which flowed a fluid similar to apostema matter, which had completely stained and besmeared her thighs, together with her chemise, before and behind, so that is was very ugly and foul to look upon. Having questioned her as to how long she had had this disease, she responded to him that it was about four years; then the aforementioned Flecelle, carefully considering her face and the condition of her body; recognized that it was impossible (she being so fat and full-bummed) that such a quantity of excrements could issue forth without her becoming emaciated, dried up, and hectic [wasted away]; and then in one leap he cast himself in great anger on this wench, giving her several kicks below the belly, so much so that he brought her to the ground and made the bowel [or gut] come out of her seat, along with the sound and noise and other stuff, too; and he forced her to declare the imposture to him, which she did, saying it was an ox’s bowel, knotted in two places, one of which knots was inside her bum, and said bowel was filled with blood and milk mixed together, in which she had made several holes, so that this mixture would ooze out. And immediately recognizing this imposture, he kicked her several more times on the belly, so she pretended to be dead.

This has something of a long, long lost episode from “House, M.D.” – the detective doctor, an expert diagnostician, sees through the patient’s ruse and by unorthodox methods (many angry kicks to the belly) gets the patient to confess the fraud. But what I wouldn’t give to know what the charlatan herself was thinking when she concocted her scheme. Would a few coins have made this adventure worthwhile? Were their grander hopes of becoming such a curiosity that the ox-gut trick would yield a permanent income?

P.S. A woman in England in the eighteenth century, Mary Toft (whom I always, for obvious reasons, want to call Mary Warren), “the Pretended Rabbit Breeder,” passed off a similar scheme that involved putting fetal rabbits inside of herself and “birthing them” in the presence of a doctor. Toft was a sensation in London until the hoax was revealed and even after (she’s giving birth to rabbits in Hogarth’s “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism”), but one wonders if that kind of fame was satisfying, how long the money lasted, and also about the physical costs to the woman. (If you’re interested in Toft – and the doctors’ reports of examining her are transfixing; her ability to simulate labor fooled many distinguished doctors – Dennis Todd’s book Imagining Monsters has a very readable account of the whole affair.)

P.P.S. If your appetite for nether parts and bowels is not yet exhausted, let me recommend Elif Batuman’s recent post concerning a golden enema borne by putti.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

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