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The Age Of The Castrato; 16th century Italy and the Male Soprano

Updated on April 2, 2014

Castration is any action or surgical method that renders the male testes useless or completely absent. This was practiced heavily in Europe, mostly Italy, in the 16th century on boys of pre-pubescent age in order to preserve the high pitched voices of young boyhood. By doing this men were able to reach a wide range of pitch with their singing voices that would otherwise be impossible by any male or female.

The biggest ethical dilemma in this is the fact that it is the altering of a young boys genitals at an age where he is too young to know or even understand what is going on; in other words he has no choice in the event and he is forever effected by this procedure. This is an ethical dilemma because the act of castration -- for lack of a better word -- literally takes the manhood out of a boy. This procedure caused men to gain abnormal features, features that were found in women, broad hips, breasts, no facial hair. This may seem miniscule but in its time these lack of traits would make the boys subject to terrible abuse by peers. The other ethical dilemma is that the act of castration didn't automatically yield a world class singer. This was wrong because it caused not only castrations to be done for no reason but it gave the poor a false impression of "a way out of poverty." Poor families would have their children castrated in hopes of them becoming famous singers that could save the family, but this was not the case leading to many young boys being castrated for nought. These are just some of the major ethical dilemmas that this time period presents, there could be argued many others but I believe these are the main points.

The closest genital mutilation that I can compare to the castration of the 16th century is the circumcision of young males. Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin of the penis, most often done at a very young age. This is a religious practice of the Jewish and is typically done similarily to when the male has no consent of the actions. However the major difference in this is that a circumcision actually yields health benefits to males. The removal of the foreskin makes males much less susceptible to a variety of infections and diseases that can get trapped and live in the foreskin. However, this doesn't make a procedure right, this procedure could just as well wait to be done at a time when the boy is able to consent to it and be informed about the procedure. There are no castrations done today for the purpose of preserving voices, they are illegal, the only other place you may hear of castration is in male torture. This alone is enough to echo the severity of the procedure that parents and the churches were allowing upon their young.

The major conditions that caused a family to emasculate their son are as earlier stated; the family was poor and thought the castration would automatically yield a great singer. However, this is not the case. Just because a boy is able to have a wide range of singing, this doesnt mean the young boy will be able to properly use this skill or able to tolerate the extreme amount of training involved with become an expert singer. Thousands of boys from poor families were castrated in hopes of fame and fortune that could save the family, and the majority of the boys just wouldn't make the cut. They were left with the effects of castration which would lead them to awkward lives filled with bullying and being outcast from their peers for their odd features. This is not the first time in history that the poor were taken advantage of, or crudely misinformed into thinking some desperate action could save them from poverty. In many cases, the poor will be taken advantage of for their despair and vulnerability so they can benefit the rich and the powerful. In this case, they benefitted the powers of the church, and if the boys didn't reach the standards of the church or the kings, they were tossed aside to obscure plays and choirs where they would be stuck for their lives, still not making enough money for themselves and their family to make it out of poverty.

Overall, I find castration to be ridiculously wrong from an ethical standpoint. Any alteration to a persons body without their consent, without them having proper knowledge, or without some outweighing health benefit or positive side is wrong in my opinion. If the procedure doesn't immediatley benefit the person, male or female, it shouldn't be done without their consent. Castration has no positive side effects, the preservation of a high pitched voice is not enough to outweigh what the procedure does. Besides the point, no child should be mutilated in such a way, that you literally take a piece of them away. Voices aren't meant to be manipulated in staying one way, they change, that is why singing is such an art. Great singers make their voice great, no matter what range or pitch they have, you don't need a surgical procedure to do that. Overall, castration for any reason in my opinion is wrong and should never be done, and its a shame that it happened to all those young boys in the 16th century.


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