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  • Queering the History of Marriage:the Social Recognition of a Castrato Husband in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Helen Berry (bio)

In October 1775 Mary Holland, a widow of Tuckey's Quay, Dublin, was summoned on behalf of the London consistory court to make a deposition about an event that she had witnessed nearly a decade earlier. This was a clandestine wedding, an irregular union that was to have immediate repercussions in English law, and broader implications in the long term for the history of marriage. Mary recalled that on the evening of 19 August 1766 she was transported to the suburbs of the town so that she could act as witness to the marriage of sixteen-year-old Dorothea Maunsell, daughter of a powerful Dublin attorney, to a famous Italian opera singer, Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci.1 Though advanced in years, Mrs Holland, who was formerly Tenducci's landlady, recalled the events in detail. She told how the bride and groom had travelled across town in sedan chairs, attended by Tenducci's manservants. When the party arrived at a certain private house they were shown into a room, where 'an elderly infirm man lay in or near a bed'.2 Mary Holland said that she had understood this man to be a Catholic priest by the name of Patrick Egan, and that he proceeded to mutter a ceremony 'not known or understood' by her. Mary believed the language to have been Latin, as 'was the usual matrimonial ceremony of the Romish church'. Once the priest had finished his incantations, the groom paid him and the ceremony was over.3

Even at the time, Mary Holland confessed, she knew that the marriage she had witnessed was suspicious, given the minority of the bride, the lack of parental consent, and the fact that it was conducted at night by a Catholic priest of dubious credentials. But the most pressing objection was that Giusto Tenducci was well-known to be a castrato, a castrated man, who was therefore presumed to have been incapable of consummating the marriage. The bride's father and her extended family were enraged when they discovered what had happened. To them, Dorothea's secret wedding to a castrato was only ever a 'pretended ceremony of marriage', in spite of the fact that it was consensual, and that the couple cohabited for several years afterwards, sharing bed and board.4 [End Page 27]


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Fig. 1.

Anon., Justus Ferdinand Tenducci, Count Palatine and Knight of the Noble and Ancient Order of St. John (c.1780). Mezzotint (353 x 252mm). Like Farinelli, the greatest castrato of the eighteenth century, Tenducci was honoured with a title in his native Italy for his musical achievements, an event commemorated in this reworking of an earlier portrait copied in 1770 by engraver John Finlayson for mass circulation among his fans.

[End Page 28]

The history of 'pretended marriages' resonates with current debates in Western societies over the legal status of same-sex unions.5 These debates raise significant historical questions about the nature of marriage itself as an institution regulated in pre-modern times by canon law, and in modern contexts by civil statutes governing its constitution and regulation.6 Decades of feminist scholarship have exposed the patriarchal underpinnings of marriage in history, arguing that male control of women's sexuality and labour have been prime motivations in the promotion of marriage as a fundamental 'building block' of society.7 In the past thirty years, gay and lesbian historiographies have also challenged the hegemonic status of heterosexual marriage by uncovering instances of unions that would have been regarded, and in some quarters are still regarded today, as 'pretend marriages'. Diverse histories have now been written, for example, of same-sex unions in the early church, male friendship and lifelong partnerships, church ceremonies that united female couples, and the nuptials performed between men in London's eighteenth-century molly houses.8 But the study of pre-modern sexualities, of which the relationship between individual subjectivity and societal prescription via structural regulatory institutions such as Christian marriage is an important dimension, has been problematized by an enduring lack of sources and by difficulties...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1477-4569
Print ISSN
1363-3554
Pages
pp. 27-50
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-11
Open Access
No
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