Has anyone heard about this scandal in the Church that existed for well over 300 years and 30 or more popes? I think it means that the Church ok’ed the castration of young boy’s so that they could sing in the papal choir.The castration was done so their voices would stay high because women were not allowed to sing in the Church.How do we defend and explain this?

[quote=SCTA-1]Has anyone heard about this scandal in the Church that existed for well over 300 years and 30 or more popes? I think it means that the Church ok’ed the castration of young boy’s so that they could sing in the papal choir.The castration was done so their voices would stay high because women were not allowed to sing in the Church.How do we defend and explain this?

I have heard that it was done.

As for how to defend it: Don’t. Apparently, some administrator in the vatican made a stupid decision (hopefully with a good intention) to do something wrong. It certainly wasn’t the first time. Perhaps it was common in society and so, while still wrong, did not appear as repugnant as it does today?

It was very much a cultural norm. Castrati were like royalty and the families agreed to the mutilation. It wasn’t scandalous at the time, and I think that is the biggest issue, but that doesn’t mean it was right.

Well, I can say that it caused some terrific music to be written for soprano… :wink:

But seriously - it wasn’t so much the Vatican as it was the culture of the time. Doing this to kids was acceptable to the people (in general) of the time, or it never would have been done. Right?

Here’s the thing. Women couldn’t sing in church. It wasn’t allowed. So they trained boy choirs so they’d have a really nice sound, and some young boys were outstanding sopranos. From what I understand, before their voices changed they had the option of “remaining soprano”. Admittedly, some kids probably didn’t know what that entailed.

Just thank God that they don’t do it anymore. Note: it wasn’t an infallible proclamation of doctrine, it was just a stupid aesthetic decision of the 18th century.

Btw - Mozart’s Exultate Ubilate from which comes his great Allelujia - was written for a famous castrato.

The Church never officially sanctioned the practice of castrating young boys to sing in chuch choirs. In fact, people who trafficked in this business were subject to excommunication.

However, there were many within the Church who, while not explicitly advocating the practice, did adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the castrati. After all, what were they to do: medically examine every boy who applies to sing in the choir? Rather than subject them to such a huiliating examination, better to just assume they were just men with extraordinarily high-pitched voices . . .

I don’t know how much the popes themselves were involved in these decisions. I suspect not much, as some really saintly pontiffs sat on the Chair of Peter during these centuries, and I find it hard to believe that they would sanction this practice.

Also, I think its possible that there was a dilemma of what to do with boys who, through no fault of their own, had undergone this horrid operation. Granted, what they had undergone was horrible and sinful. “But hey,” some may have thought. “Might as well put them to good use and get some pretty music out of it!”

Sp while the procedure itself was forbidden, employing boys who had already undergone it may not have been.

I’m not sure exactly. I haven’t found a whole lot of documentation concerning Church knowledge and involvement in this practice. Perhaps someone can link to some good resources?

Although I don’t have documentation at hand, an extremely well informed acquaintance of mine who is an authority on all things operatic and ancient regarding vocal music, has noted on a radio program of his that it was well known what castrati were, that it was done, etc.

Vis a vis the time and culture in which it happened, it is likely a misnomer to term it a “scandal.” It was not particularly scandalous in the time and places it was done. I don’t think it was a thing limited to ecclesiastical choral groups, either.

The last castratus died in probably around 1921, and I have heard recordings, albeit scratchy, that were made of some of the last castrati in existence shortly after the turn of the century.

Note, I’m not justifying the practice, just commenting that what would be considered scandal nowadays wasn’t necessarily scandalous then.

Pax et bonum.

Here’s a good article from The Guardian:

From the 16th century onwards generations of Italian boys were castrated in the hope that their voices, prevented from breaking, would combine a child’s high register with the vocal power of a man.

. . .

According to Angels Against their Will, a new book by the German historian Hubert Ortkemper, the castrato Alessandro Moreschi performed in the Sistine chapel until 1913. Other historians suspect that Domenico Mancini, another private pontifical singer who performed from 1939 to 1959, was a castrato, too.

Officially the Vatican always condemned the practice, which is thought to have started around 1500, and punished castrators with excommunication. In 1902 it issued a decree banning castrati from the Sistine chapel.

But such was the beauty and power of their singing that successive popes sponsored the phenomenon by employing them on the pretext that they were accidentally castrated, for example by falling from a horse or by an animal bite.

Wow! You folks here are great with the info and I appreciate it very much. The Bible states that women should keep silent in Church and this statement was used in order to justify the castrati.Now the Church allows women to speak in Church.How did the Church get around this prohibition against women speaking when the Bible says no.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not misogynistic, I’m just trying to figure this out theologically and in good faith.

I think Saint Paul’s prohibitions against women speaking were meant to indicate that they should not serve roles as ordained ministers, or speech associated with those roles (like preaching a homily).

Maybe someone else can clarify.

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I’ve just been searching for answers on this subject…so thanks for all previous replies…

I just want to add that castration did not ‘retain’ a soprano sound… it created an enturely new castrato sound… they have the vocal chords of a boy but with the mouth and projection and lung capacity of a man… very different.

I struggle with this as it did originate within the church but because not many of them stayed within it… the popular culture of the time als adopted them for opera etc…

what bothers me is that their whole bodies were deformed by this proceedure and to look at they would have been very freakish by any standards… long arms and legs, massively expanded chests and femanine features. The subject is ambiguous as the church kind of ignored it…never condoning or repressing it was popular. I believe pope Sixtus V was going to ban it and then feared that people would not attend mass so regularly (i don’t know if that was accurate or whether his fears were overexaggerated over time). Instead he issued a papal Bull in 1589 which approved the recruitment of castrati for the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

In the end it was not the Catholic church that put an end to the castrato but the new tenor’s of the day who brought in a new sound… the castrati were already being phased out by the culture before the church banned them.

They should have taken the lead and not followed in this instance as they ignored and employed hundreds of thousands of boys who were mutilated. I think the posters here who say we should not defend everything are correct. There isn’t really naything to say about it.


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Well, as has been said, castrati were the celebrities and stars of the day on the popular stage as well as being used in church choirs. Partly perhaps because it was unheard of for women to appear on the popular stage (as you may recall if you’ve seen the movie Shakespeare in Love) or to sing in public.

This being the case, the families of promising boy singers would take the initiative themselves of having the child castrated, in the hopes of him having a lucrative career. It’s not like churchmen would find boys to castrate. Nor like the church was especially demanding to be supplied with castrati - after all, in that day as this there were countertenors or male sopranos who could sing the same material and just as well, even if sounding different to a castrato.

The Church even may have taken these poor unfortunates into their employment out of sheer pity, since they probably would’ve been the ones who weren’t quite opera star material.

To me it’s kinda like the situation with allowing married Anglican clergy who convert to Catholicism to become Catholic priests while remaining married. Not the ideal situation by any means, but certainly the poor person involved doesn’t deserve to be discarded for something that’s not a fault of their own.

There’s an excellent Italian movie called* Farinelli* which tells the life story of one of these star operatic castrati.

Edit: on further pondering of the issue, perhaps it’s best to consider it in the same light as the unfortunate and mistaken condoning by churchmen of all denominations of the institution of slavery - perhaps done more in ignorance of the true suffering such things cause than actual malice.

the point being though that the castrato began withiun the church and was adopted by secular entertainment… not the other way round. i was just reading to hear what peoples opinions were on it nowadays.


I did rethink a little and reedit my post - have another read :slight_smile:

I have read that up until the beginning of the 20th Century it was not uncommon for women to have their perfectly healthy ovaries (and even on rare occasions the clitoris!) removed surgically as a treatment for psychological problems :banghead: - or even worse as a preventative for such problems!

This was a fairly frequent part of supposedly enlightened Western medical practice :nope:

I think a lot of it can only be chalked up to ignorance.

there’s a recording of a pretty rubbish castrato online… such a wierd sound… alien sound really… yours is a post i never expected to read while eating lol :slight_smile:

Take care, S x

I’m sorry - hope I didn’t put you off your food. :bigyikes: Mind you if you’re thinking of castrati in the first place you must’ve known the conversation would go downhill pretty fast :wink:

The ‘last castrato’ who was the only one recorded was, I believe, well into his sixties by the time he got to be recorded, so past his prime in any event.

Mind you even the great (and proudly Australian) soprano Nellie Melba sounds a bit funny on record - the early technology wasn’t kind at all to high-pitched voices.

yeah, something about recording into a cyllinder… they cant record any kind of high pitch or projection of voice… there is an italian guy i think who had a defect which meas his voice is only partially broken… so he’s not really a castrato as its broken partly, but he’s a really high soprano and the closest thing today. S

I think castrati were used in the Church in Constantinople for hundreds of years, 800?. After it was invaded by the Western Church castrati dissapeared completely, gone, - only to re-emerge later for a few hundred years. Some were very famous, guys like Handel could’nt afford some of the biggest names.

Castrati originated in the Far and Middle East, where lots of kings and wealthy men had tons of wives and eunuchs to guard them. Muslim kings and their harems really emphasized this. Somewhere along the line, the castrati vocal quality was noticed.

From there, it went to Constantinople, and from there to the West.

In other words, it wasn’t Europe’s idea! We were led astray!

I was lead astray! lol… I find myself saying that quite a lot lol… but we’re each responsible.

I was wondering about castrato’s in relation to natural moral law… they would never be allowed to have sex etc i assume, or marry…and yet not allowed to be priests?


I think they’d be allowed to be priests. Catholic priests are celibate anyways, remember.

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