Choirboys of the Middle Ages

Recently my wife, who is finishing up a degree in fine arts at a local college, confronted a fellow student on an accusation she made in class. This student is well know to make off the wall remarks and accusations about the Catholic Church in class without any proof or resources to support them.

Her resent accusation is about choirboys of the middle ages, who were castrated in order to retain their positions in the church choir (obviously to keep their high soprano voices). The student further indicts the church with their full knowledge and condoning of these actions of mutilating the body. My wife asked if the student could produce any proof, however the professor also gave her support to the student and her accusation.

My wife and I are not aware of such practices of the middle ages (we doubt it) however we are sure the Catholic Church itself would not allow such practices to be permitted in light of the churches teachings (theology of the body).

Can you supply any resources to help support the contention that this practice didn’t take place and/or if the did the church didn’t condone them?

Tim & Selena
Chino Hills, CA

Hate to give you the bad news but this was pretty common practice up until the 19th century. The boys were known as “castrati” and beloved for their pure voices which went into adulthood. Some of this had to do with women not being able to sing in choirs nor, as in Shakespeare’s time, appear on stage. These castrati filled roles in choirs and in operas, for example, where women could not sing/act.

Actually, it’s true. Castrati (as they were called) were long common. The Church abandoned the practice early in the past century, however. Now, that said, there’s surely more to the story than what those who brought it up are making it out to be in throwing stones.

Sorry to split hairs, but shouldn’t you be looking to find the truth- not looking to back up what you believe or want to be true? I have a feeling this was instituted by some very corrupt individuals- so of course the Church wouldn’t support it today officially- but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t make mistakes in the past.

I think we need to be careful about always defending what the Church (or those representing the Church) has done, because those who are outside the Church are just waiting for us to make assertions that aren’t true. While it is definitely ok to be loyal to the Church and her teaching, we should be ready to admit that there were and are some incredibly shady people in it.

I’m not really sure how accurate it is, but, rent the movie “Faranelli”…it’s Italian. I’m sure, even if you don’t rent it, you can check out stuff online about it. It’s a pretty good movie, I think…but, I haven’t seen it in…mmmm…8 or more years.

This custom must be considered within its historical and cultural context. First, it was not only the Church that employed Castrati singers, but many government sponsored or private opera companies in many nations as well. Castrati were often preferred to women sopranos because even though they retained their pure high vocal ranges they also had a mature male’s larger lung capacity and ability to project their voices to fill a large opera hall, a necessary quality in the days before electric sound ampliphication. (this, incidentally is why many female opera singers in the past tended to be big women with large lung capacities and is the origin of the saying “it aint over 'til the fat lady sings.”)

While we today rightly view castration for purposes of maintaining a pure singing voice to be an abhorrent mutilation, this has not always been the case. Rather, it was seen as a way of preserving a God-given gift. Families who eccouraged this for their boys were not necessarily “shady people.” More often they were loving partents who saw this as a means of ensuring their sons’ future financial security in a world where they might otherwise die poor were they unable to earn a living by singing past puberty. Many castrati became wealthy, honored and famous artists, not unlike a rock star or movie star today. Their surgeries might be compared with today’s custom of actors’ undergoing cosmetic surgery to enable them to continue playing younger roles as they grow older.

JB

Yes this was practiced, but not only by the Catholic Church. Handel wrote many operas and oratorios where the main male voice was a soprano. However, a castrati could not marry, so most became priests.

[quote=Psalm45:9]Yes this was practiced, but not only by the Catholic Church. Handel wrote many operas and oratorios where the main male voice was a soprano. However, a castrati could not marry, so most became priests.
[/quote]

A castrato could not become a priest. A candidate for priesthood had to be physically “perfect” (as the Lamb). Recently, this rule has been changed, and although castration is still not acceptable, other physical disabilities, such as blindness, no longer lock you out of the process.

Of course, if you become disabled or lose a limb (or are castrated) AFTER ordination, that does not mean you can no longer be a priest.

Thanks everyone for your quick response. Yes, we are always in search of the full truth…as in truth we have nothing to fear.

In our research as well, we came across a reference to a Papal Decree, somewhere around 1780ish, which prohibited the further practice within the church. Outside the church it appears to have continued until the 18th century.

Can anyone help in locating that Papal Decree? My wife would like to take that with her to class as she prepares to present the facts, honestly and truthfully.

God Bless
tim & selena +<><
chino hill, ca

[quote=brotherhrolf]…this was pretty common practice up until the 19th century.
[/quote]

19th Century. Got it.

[quote=chicago]…The Church abandoned the practice early in the past century.
[/quote]

Oops, that would be the 20th Century.

[quote=trobles]…it appears to have continued until the 18th century.
[/quote]

Hmmmm…

Three people give three different dates for this practice ending. Does anyone have the correct info, please?

[quote=Timidity]19th Century. Got it.
Oops, that would be the 20th Century.
Hmmmm…

Three people give three different dates for this practice ending. Does anyone have the correct info, please?
[/quote]

Well, yeah… I am not sure either and am very confused. I know it was practiced, but where are all these dates coming from? Somebody needs to check this out please… (and I am supposed to be working in class right now instead of posting on the forum… got to go!)

[quote=Fashina86]Well, yeah… I am not sure either and am very confused. I know it was practiced, but where are all these dates coming from? Somebody needs to check this out please… (and I am supposed to be working in class right now instead of posting on the forum… got to go!)
[/quote]

The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1903. There are recordings. He sang in the Sistine Chapel.

[quote=mercygate]The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1903. There are recordings. He sang in the Sistine Chapel.
[/quote]

That’s what I was referring to earlier. So that’s one ball we’ve knocked off.

Yes, it happened. No the Church never condoned it, much less demanded it. Though it can be argued that the Church encouraged the practice by banning women from singing in church choirs (except in abbeys).

Yes some poor parents of boys who were gifted singers had them castrated to let them keep their place in (paid) choirs, in the hope that this would lead to further career in the church. The parents told the priests that their son had had an unfortunate accident. The Church has always condemned deliberate removal of irreplaceable parts of the body, except where this is done for the health of the whole body.

With the huge and growing popularity of opera and choir-as-performance in the 18th century, the practice grew more common in Italy. The Church tried to stamp it out by banning any castrato from singing in a church choir. The ban took effect long before 1903. IIRC it was about 1790.

[quote=chicago]That’s what I was referring to earlier. So that’s one ball we’ve knocked off.
[/quote]

:rotfl: :bowdown2:

I 'googled" castrati. Here is one article (from Sony music) which doesn’t seem to have an anti-Catholic agenda. sonyclassics.com/farinelli/about/fcastrati.html

Here’s another link that has a lot of info.–though I didn’t see any answers to questions about the Catholic Church and when the practice ended. (Though I only did a very superficial scan):

radix.net/~dalila/singers/castrato-lifetimes.html

[quote=trobles]Recently my wife, who is finishing up a degree in fine arts at a local college, confronted a fellow student on an accusation she made in class. This student is well know to make off the wall remarks and accusations about the Catholic Church in class without any proof or resources to support them.

Her resent accusation is about choirboys of the middle ages, who were castrated in order to retain their positions in the church choir (obviously to keep their high soprano voices). The student further indicts the church with their full knowledge and condoning of these actions of mutilating the body. My wife asked if the student could produce any proof, however the professor also gave her support to the student and her accusation.

My wife and I are not aware of such practices of the middle ages (we doubt it) however we are sure the Catholic Church itself would not allow such practices to be permitted in light of the churches teachings (theology of the body).

Can you supply any resources to help support the contention that this practice didn’t take place and/or if the did the church didn’t condone them?

Tim & Selena
Chino Hills, CA
[/quote]

I highly doubt this would have been the case in the Middle Ages as the operatic “bel canto” style of singing had not developed. But in the Baroque period Castrati were not at all rare.

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