BOOK OF THE WEEK
LOVE: A CURIOUS HISTORY IN 50 OBJECTS
by Edward Brooke-Hitching (S&S £30, 256pp)
When women danced in 19th century rural Austria, they did so with a slice of apple tucked into their armpit. Men would surround them in a circle.
When a woman decided that her apple was sufficiently soaked in sweat, she would present it to the man she desired as her suitor. If he wished to accept the proposal, he would eat the fruit. If he declined, the woman would place the slice back under her arm and resume dancing.
There’s nowt so queer as folk (as they didn’t say in 19th-century rural Austria), and folk are never queerer than when love is involved.
Edward Brooke-Hitching’s delightful book is a collection of the curiosities, absurdities and downright filth that can arise when two (or more) human beings become attracted to each other. The ‘celestial bed’, for instance, was a facility offered by James Graham’s 18th-century ‘Temple of Health’ on London‘s Pall Mall. The bed was mildly electrified, and for £50 (no mean sum back then) it could be hired by couples who wanted to conceive.
‘I want a woman to look after the pigs while I am out at work,’ said a widower who shared an advert in the Dorset County Chronicle in 1832
‘The barren must certainly become fruitful,’ boasted Graham, ‘when they are powerfully agitated in the delight.’ If you say so, James. The bed was certainly a reminder of the biological instinct behind the physical act of love. As, indeed, is the Taj Mahal — it was built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, who had died giving birth to her 14th child. Finding a mate in the first place can be tricky.
In 2012, a man in his 50s appeared in a park in China wearing nothing but a chastity belt, displaying banners proclaiming that he wanted a wife, and that the belt showed his commitment to fidelity.
Sadly the book doesn’t say whether he succeeded, though I can’t help agreeing with the comment of one passer-by: ‘I don’t think he’ll find a wife this way.’ The idea of a public appeal is nothing new.
In 1832 the Dorset County Chronicle carried an advert by a widower seeking another wife. ‘I do not want a second family,’ he clarified. ‘I want a woman to look after the pigs while I am out at work.’ Having found someone, you must keep them. Couples in ancient China would often present each other with combs as a symbol of their love, implying they would stay together until their hair turned white. In The Art Of Love, the Roman poet Ovid gives men several pieces of advice on how to retain a woman. These include ‘not forgetting her birthday’ and ‘not asking about her age’.
Back in 4th century BC Greece, the Sacred Band of Thebes was an army unit comprised entirely of pairs of male lovers, ‘based on the idea that men completely devoted and loyal to each other would form an unstoppable cohesive unit’.
I admit this has never been my side of the fence, but having checked with friends, I do question whether that assumption about gay men being loyal to each other is any truer for them than it is for straight couples. Despite everyone’s best intentions, love sometimes withers away.
In the 15th century, German couples who wanted to divorce could settle their disputes by fighting. The husband was allowed a sword but had to stand in a hole up to his waist, while the wife was allowed to batter him with a rock wrapped in a sheet. (If TV had existed back then you could have sold the rights for a fortune.)
LOVE: A CURIOUS HISTORY IN 50 OBJECTS by Edward Brooke-Hitching (S&S £30, 256pp)
Books like this, covering thousands of years of human history, often leave you feeling that for all our differences over the centuries, we’ve never changed. The essential truth here is that almost all of us want someone to love, and this can often lead to strange situations. When J.W.C. van Gorcum of Roermond in the Netherlands died in 1880, he was buried in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, died eight years later, but as she was Catholic she was buried in the neighbouring cemetery. Not, however, before leaving instructions that her tomb was to be built right up against the wall, just the other side from her husband’s, with a stone arm emerging from each structure, so the couple could hold hands forever.
Just as poignant is the story of Thomas Edison, who taught his second wife Morse code so the couple could tap out secret affectionate messages to each other while in company.
Ultimately, for the human race to continue, the emotional has to become physical. As the Bible puts it (the Song of Songs in the Old Testament): ‘Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.’
In West Africa, part of the wedding ceremony of the Yoruba people involves blessing the wife’s buttocks. This is so that the relevant body part may sit in the marital home for a long time, not having to share a house with parents or move on to a second marriage. The woman grabs her own buttocks and chants what is informally known as the ‘my bumbum’ prayer. The male anatomy gets its fair share of attention too. The Kama Sutra advises men to smear their ‘instrument’ in honey, powdered thorn apple and black pepper to ‘induce ecstasy’, while Tutankhamun was mummified with his penis erect, at an angle of 90 degrees. (Sadly it was snapped off shortly after his tomb was discovered.)
Napoleon’s was removed by his priest as a keepsake and, after passing through several hands (look, it’s impossible to write about this stuff without sounding smutty), it was owned until 2007 by a New Jersey urologist. Then he died, leaving the item to his daughter, who has since been offered $100,000 but refuses to sell.
For those men who were no longer, shall we say, up for it, there was John Romulus Brinkley. In the early 20th century, this American ‘doctor’ claimed he could restore sexual vigour by sewing goat testicles into your scrotum.
It will astonish you to learn that, despite the operation being performed on countless patients, the only proven benefit was to Brinkley’s bank account.