Chapter XI

History of the Old Woman

I HAD NOT always bleared eyes and red eyelids; neither did my nose always touch my chin; nor was I always a servant. I am the daughter of Pope Urban X, and of the Princess of Palestrina. Until the age of fourteen I was brought up in a palace, to which all the castles of your German barons would scarcely have served for stables; and one of my robes was worth more than all the magnificence of Westphalia. As I grew up I improved in beauty, wit, and every graceful accomplishment, in the midst of pleasures, hopes, and respectful homage. Already I inspired love. My throat was formed, and such a throat! white, firm, and shaped like that of the Venus of Medici; and what eyes! what eyelids! what black eyebrows! such flames darted from my dark pupils that they eclipsed the scintillation of the stars—as I was told by the poets in our part of the world. My waiting women, when dressing and undressing me, used to fall into an ecstasy, whether they viewed me before or behind; how glad would the gentlemen have been to perform that office for them!

“I was affianced to the most excellent Prince of Massa Carara. Such a prince! as handsome as myself, sweet-tempered, agreeable, brilliantly witty, and sparkling with love. I loved him as one loves for the first time—with idolatry, with transport. The nuptials were prepared. There was surprising pomp and magnificence; there were fêtes, carousals, continual opéra bouffe; and all Italy composed sonnets in my praise, though not one of them was passable. I was just upon the point of reaching the summit of bliss, when an old marchioness who had been mistress to the Prince, my husband, invited him to drink chocolate with her. He died in less than two hours of most terrible convulsions. But this is only a bagatelle. My mother, in despair, and scarcely less afflicted than myself, determined to absent herself for some time from so fatal a place. She had a very fine estate in the neighborhood of Gaeta. We embarked on board a galley of the country which was gilded like the great altar of St. Peter's at Rome. A Sallee corsair swooped down and boarded us. Our men defended themselves like the Pope's soldiers; they flung themselves upon their knees, and threw down their arms, begging of the corsair an absolution in articulo mortis.

“Instantly they were stripped as bare as monkeys; my mother, our maids of honor, and myself were all served in the same manner. It is amazing with what expedition those gentry undress people. But what surprised me most was, that they thrust their fingers into the part of our bodies which the generality of women suffer no other instrument but—pipes to enter. It appeared to me a very strange kind of ceremony; but thus one judges of things when one has not seen the world. I afterwards learned that it was to try whether we had concealed any diamonds. This is the practice established from time immemorial, among civilized nations that scour the seas. I was informed that the very religious knights of Malta never fail to make this search when they take any Turkish prisoners of either sex. It is a law of nations from which they never deviate.

“I need not tell you how great a hardship it was for a young princess and her mother to be made slaves and carried to Morocco. You may easily imagine all we had to suffer on board the pirate vessel. My mother was still very handsome; our maids of honor, and even our waiting women, had more charms than are to be found in all Africa. As for myself, I was ravishing, was exquisite, grace itself, and I was a virgin! I did not remain so long; this flower, which had been reserved for the handsome Prince of Massa Carara, was plucked by the corsair captain. He was an abominable negro, and yet believed that he did me a great deal of honor. Certainly the Princess of Palestrina and myself must have been very strong to go through all that we experienced until our arrival at Morocco. But let us pass on; these are such common things as not to be worth mentioning.

“Morocco swam in blood when we arrived. Fifty sons of the Emperor Muley-Ismael had each their adherents; this produced fifty civil wars, of blacks against blacks, and blacks against tawnies, and tawnies against tawnies, and mulattoes against mulattoes. In short it was a continual carnage throughout the empire.

“No sooner were we landed, than the blacks of a contrary faction to that of my captain attempted to rob him of his booty. Next to jewels and gold we were the most valuable things he had. I was witness to such a battle as you have never seen in your European climates. The northern nations have not that heat in their blood, nor that raging lust for women, so common in Africa. It seems that you Europeans have only milk in your veins; but it is vitriol, it is fire which runs in those of the inhabitants of Mount Atlas and the neighboring countries. They fought with the fury of the lions, tigers, and serpents of the country, to see who should have us. A Moor seized my mother by the right arm, while my captain's lieutenant held her by the left; a Moorish soldier had hold of her by one leg, and one of our corsairs held her by the other. Thus almost all our women were drawn in quarters by four men. My captain concealed me behind him; and with his drawn scimitar cut and slashed every one that opposed his fury. At length I saw all our Italian women, and my mother herself, torn, mangled, massacred, by the monsters who disputed over them. The slaves, my companions, those who had taken them, soldiers, sailors, blacks, whites, mulattoes, and at last my captain, all were killed, and I remained dying on a heap of dead. Such scenes as this were transacted through an extent of three hundred leagues—and yet they never missed the five prayers a day ordained by Mahomet.

“With difficulty I disengaged myself from such a heap of slaughtered bodies, and crawled to a large orange tree on the bank of a neighboring rivulet, where I fell, oppressed with fright, fatigue, horror, despair, and hunger. Immediately after, my senses, overpowered, gave themselves up to sleep, which was yet more swooning than repose. I was in this state of weakness and insensibility, between life and death, when I felt myself pressed by something that moved upon my body. I opened my eyes, and saw a white man, of good countenance, who sighed, and who said between his teeth: ‘O che sciagura d'essere senza coglioni!’

Footnotes

  1. Technically, the old woman isn't referring to Mount Atlas, a volcano in Antarctica, but to the Atlas Mountains, a range of mountains that runs through Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The inhabitants of this region, in her mind, stand in for all African peoples, which, like her mistake in geography, proves her to be incredibly racist, as is to be expected in that time period.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. Italian for “Oh, what a misfortune to be a eunuch!” A eunuch is a man who has been castrated (or had his genitalia removed), typically by a religious official or owner who wanted to ensure the eunuch wouldn't be tempted by the women around them. This was especially common in harems, where eunuchs were required to protect the women in the harm but weren't allowed to engage in sexual relations with them.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Salah, one of the five pillars of Islam, dictates that every Muslim must pray to Allah five times per day at prescribed times, as mandated by the prophet Muhammad in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Voltaire reminds us of the piety and discipline of this practice to contrast it with the horror and the bloodshed the Muslims inflict, thus building on the theme of religious hypocrisy central to the book.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. A short, single-edged sword with a curved blade, traditionally used in Turkey and the Middle East and thus associated with Muslims, Moors, and those of vaguely Middle Eastern descent. As a pirate, the captain pirate is unlikely to have protected the old woman over the Princess, which suggests that, though he raped her, he has grown fond of her, as implied when he thought taking her virginity showed her "a great deal of honor."

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. Originally, the term "Moor" referred to a citizen of Morocco, but later came to mean anyone of a group of Muslim and African peoples who conquered Spain in the 8th Century and built many mosques there during their reign. Eventually, the Moors were pushed down into the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, but the term Moor was still used to refer to dark-skinned people, such as Othello in the Shakespeare play.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Africans were thought by racist, colonialist Europeans to be warlike and hyper-sexualized people, in part because they wore significantly fewer clothes than the Europeans. Often, Europeans used this belief that Africans would rape their women and slaughter their children to justify genocide and the subjugation of the African peoples. In this passage, we can clearly see the impact that these racist ideas have had on the international community.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. Mulattoes are people of mixed-race descent, typically with one white and one African or African-American parent. Tawnies are people of a similar mixed-raced heritage with lighter, "tawny" or tan skin (in this case, likely a light-skinned African or someone of mixed Spanish and African descent). These terms are racist and derogatory and should not be used today.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, the second ruler of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty, known as the "Warrior King" in his country because he was an especially cruel tyrant with skill on the battlefield. He's alleged to have fathered some 800 children, over half of which were sons. After his death, his sons fought over the throne, though how many fought, and if this civil war was as bloody as the old woman suggests, remains unclear.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. Notice that the old woman doesn't refer to the Princess of Palestrina as her mother, as would be natural in this situation. This evident lack of familiarity provides further proof that the old woman has been lying, while at the same time suggesting that she may well have been a maid of the Princess and experienced all the things she has described.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. The Knights of Malta was a religious military order also known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. In 1530, after years of having no headquarters, King Charles I of Spain gave them Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli, for the price of a Maltese falcon (a hunting bird) to be paid every year on All Saints' Day. The old woman mentions the Knights in order to seem worldly and give credence to her story.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Notice this abrupt use of the em-dash mid sentence. Voltaire uses it to indicate that the old woman intended to say something else (likely something crass), but instead chose to use the euphemist "pipes" to indicate the male sexual organ in consideration of the innocence and youth of her companions (despite their being very familiar with rape).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. The "gentry" was a class of nobleman and landowners often referred to as the landed gentry, or as gentlemen and ladies. In this context, the word is applied to the corsairs, who, being pirates, would not generally be considered gentry or even particularly high class. Thus, we should read "gentry" as "people," here used in a derogatory sense to mean "those people."

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. Latin for at the point of death. Faced with almost certain death, the old woman's soldiers are praying for absolution (forgiveness, but also in this case freedom) from the corsairs, who are here referred to as a singular collective rather than as plural individuals.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. The Pope doesn't technically have an army or soldiers, but is protected within the Vatican City and on missions by the Swiss Guards, a group of Swiss soldiers that watches over the Holy See, or the capital of the Catholic world, and (less famously) over some small foreign courts. Early Swiss Guards were typically mercenaries bought to protect the Vatican City and were thus prone to surrendering at the first sign of danger, as is depicted here.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. Sallee is a Moroccan port that was once used as a headquarters for pirates, or "corsairs." A corsair was typically a privateer or sailor who attacked the boats of merchants or travelers. Given that Gaeta is a city in Italy not terribly far from Palestrina, the Sallee corsair would've had to be sailing unusually close to the Italian shore to board their little galley. (Why they chose to sail rather than travel this relatively short distance by carriage is unclear.)

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. Also known as the Chair or Throne of St. Peter, this altar in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City is one of the most ostentatious altars in all of Italy: a giant, gilt bronze sculpture that towers over the priests and was once used by the Pope as a throne on which he granted people audiences.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. A trifle, or a thing of no importance. Given how much time the old woman has spent building up to this moment, it's hard to believe that she considers it merely a bagatelle. It is, instead, relatively unimportant compared to the other horrors she's suffered, as we will see in the rest of her story.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. Opera "bouffe" is a style of opera that was prevalent in France in the late 19th Century. Opera "buffa" is a term that generally refers to the Italian comic opera, which was popularized during the Renaissance and is mistakenly called "opera bouffe" here. This kind of comic opera is in line with the "carousals" the old woman speaks of and to the general atmosphere of merriment at her wedding.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  19. We typically see this phrase as "pomp and circumstance," referring to a showy or ostentatious display, often one of great self-importance, such as a marriage ceremony or graduation. As the daughter of the Princess, this pomp would've been expected and in no way "surprising," which calls the old woman's description of into question.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  20. In this context, "idolatry" means adoration or a kind of fierce romantic idolization between two lovers, while "transport" means emotionally resonant or powerful, a kind of love that transported the old woman and moved her in some way (likely into believing that this love would last forever). One could argue that both Cunegonde and Candide feel this kind of love.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  21. Engaged to be married, as in a fiance. In the mid-18th Century and in some parts of the world today, marriages were arranged by parents, and children (male or female) had little to no say in their spouses. These arranged marriages were often political in nature, functioning like treaties between two kingdoms or cities. In this case, that treaty would be between Palestrina and Massa Carara.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  22. "Scintillation" meaning the action of sparkling or catching the eye's attention. The old woman claims that her eyes were so passionate (that "such flames darted" from them) that they were more attractive and riveting than the stars. This is an obvious use of hyperbole and should indicate to the reader that the old woman has been exaggerating (and perhaps even lying) throughout this entire passage.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  23. The Venus de Medici, a marble copy of a bronze sculpture created in ancient Greece in the 1st Century BCE. It's currently housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Rome and, though not as famous as the Venus de Milo, is considered to be one of the models of classic Western ideals of beauty. Voltaire makes this comparison to the Venus de Medici in order to evoke sympathy from the reader.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  24. Palestrina is an ancient Italian city just to the east of Rome. In 1630, it and its surrounding lands were bought by the Barberini family, one of the wealthiest Italian families of the time, who treated the city like a small kingdom and declared themselves princes and princesses. As the daughter of the Princess, the old woman would've been considered (within Palestrina, at least) royalty, which makes her current state all the more remarkable.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  25. Voltaire, being a satirist, wanted to poke fun at organized religion, but didn't want to risk a charge of heresy by claiming that any real Pope had a bastard child. Pope Urban X, then, is a fabrication, the last Pope named Urban being Urban VIII, who died in 1644. Urban X, as Pope, shouldn't have had any children, and it's this hypocrisy and corruption that Voltaire addresses in the old woman's story.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor