“There were very few beauties,” wrote Jane Austen to her sister about a party she attended in 1800. The two Miss Maitlands had “a good deal of nose”; the General, “the gout”; Mrs. Maitland, “the jaundice”; and regarding Susan, Sally, and Miss Debary, Austen was “as civil to them as their bad breath would allow.”
At the 1883 trial of Alferd Packer, who ate five members of his prospecting party in Colorado after the group got lost during a winter trek, the judge was said to have told the convicted, “There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you’ve ate five of them, God damn you. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you is dead, dead, dead, as a warning against reducing the Democrat population of the state.”
Roman gladiators’ vegetarian diet was so full of beans and barley they were called hordearii, “barley men.” While serving as a gladiator-school physician, Galen criticized the diet; it built up bodies “not with dense and compressed flesh,” he wrote, “but instead rather more spongy.”
Seneca the Younger tells of Hostius Quadra, who installed mirrors in his bedroom to reflect distorted images. “He relished the exaggerated endowment of his own organ as much as if it were real,” Seneca complained. Quadra confirmed: “If I could,” he said, “I’d have that size in the flesh; since I can’t, I’ll feast on the fantasy.”
Andean legends tell of pishtacos, bogeymen who steal their victims’ fat. In colonial times they were said to be Franciscan monks who used the fat as church-bell grease or holy oil. By the 1960s they were sometimes represented as workers who used it to lubricate modern factory machinery or airplane engines.
When early nineteenth-century corset fashion shifted from the buxom “Venus ideal” to the slimmer “Diana ideal,” it became popular for women to wear the garment but claim they weren’t. “Actresses would say, ‘I don’t need to wear a corset,’” historian Valerie Steele noted in 2012, “but you look at their photograph and you go, ‘Babe, you are so wearing a corset.’”
A French tale from 1615 contains a rare early modern mention of a married woman considering birth control. Her method: pressing a bead of perfume on “that artery that the vulgar calls the pulse” during intercourse. The procedure fails—not due to its own inadequacies, the reader is told, but because the woman, so taken by her activity, neglects to apply the perfume.
A common belief in antiquity was that bees were born of decaying ox flesh. Virgil instructs in his Georgics to stop up a young bullock’s nostrils and mouth, beat it “to a pulp through the unbroken hide,” shut the carcass in a small room to ferment, and await the bees that will burst out “like a shower pouring from summer clouds.”
Jin dynasty general Yuanzi once peeked in on a soothsaying Buddhist nun while she bathed. He watched her carve open her belly, take out her viscera, and cut off her own head. Later, the nun emerged intact. “If you remove or bully the supreme ruler,” she told Yuanzi, “your body should be like that.” The general was disappointed; he had been planning a coup but now reconsidered.
A seventh-century Chinese treatise declares after “careful investigation” that “there are but thirty main positions for consummating the sexual union.” These include Bamboos Near the Altar, Reversed Flying Ducks, Phoenix Holding Its Chicken, Cat and Mouse in One Hole, and Donkeys in the Third Moon of Spring. “The understanding reader,” it concludes, will “probe their wonderful meaning to its very depth.”