Monday, April 06, 2020


A Superfluous Treasure

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury, Vol. VII (London: Methuen & Co., 1900), p. 216, n. 15:
The same writer [David Hume, History of England] has given us, from Fitz-Stephen, a singular act of cruelty perpetrated on the clergy by Geoffrey, the father of Henry II. "When he was master of Normandy, the chapter of Seez presumed, without his consent, to proceed to the election of a bishop: upon which he ordered all of them, with the bishop elect, to be castrated, and made all their testicles be brought him in a platter." Of the pain and danger they might justly complain; yet since they had vowed chastity he deprived them of a superfluous treasure.

Thanks to Eric Thomson for drawing my attention to an article about a disease afflicting Gibbon's own family jewels—J. Leavesley, "Decline and fall of an author," Australian Doctor (April 21, 2006) 45:
As well as being the author of that monumental work, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote about himself — several times.

As a result we know quite a bit about his two illnesses — chronic gout and a massive hydrocele.

Born on 17 April 1737 in Putney, then a village outside London, he was neglected by his inattentive parents. A precocious child, he was packed off first to Westminster School, where he wrote: "I swallowed more physic than food", and then at the age of 14 to Oxford. He hated both institutions.

At 19 he became entangled in his only romantic interlude, with Suzanne Curchod, but his father disapproved, whereupon he famously remarked: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son" and they parted.

In 1772 aged 35 he was stricken by what he called "a dignified disorder", namely gout, a malady as widespread and significant to 18th century gentlemen as is coronary thrombosis in the 21st century. As it seemed mostly to afflict men of letters, peers of the realm and similar upper crust, it was regarded as the disease of lords, one of those rare afflictions it was a positive honour to acquire and a mark of good family and fine breeding. It was almost certainly diet related.

Characteristic of the disease, the attacks became more frequent with the years and dogged Gibbon during his writing of Decline and Fall, but, together with his favourite tipple madeira, he passed it off as one of the more bearable evils of life.

His left foot suffered most and he went to Switzerland, thinking the mountain air would help. It did not and from 1790 his health deteriorated rapidly.

Always a bon vivant, Gibbon became inordinately fat, but if his gout was a disease he could flaunt and which, as he ambiguously wrote "spared my more noble parts", so the complaint which was to kill him, his hydrocele, was unmentionable and humiliating.

The protuberance grew bigger and bigger and he pretended to be unaware of it, until its sheer size interfered with his micturition. The resulting pervading odour was socially unacceptable.

He then wrote his famous letter to Lord Sheffield: "Have you never observed through my inexpressibles [the word 'trousers' was very lower class] a large prominency circa genitalia [one of those 'more noble parts'?]?", adding he had "strangely neglected it for many years".

Unlike Gibbon, Sheffield did not shillyshally and took the patient to see the renowned surgeon, Henry Cline. He removed 4.5L of fluid on 14 November 1793, reducing the swelling by half. Two weeks later 3.4L were evacuated. Within a few days the hydrocele was painful, ulcerated and a fever set in. But on 13 January 1794, 6.8L were withdrawn, making a grand total of 14.7L.

On 16 January the peerless and cultivated Edward Gibbon collapsed and died. He was 57.

Gibbon wrote and lived in the grand style of his times, becoming one of the world's greatest historians.

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