Chapter XII

The Adventures of the Old Woman Continued

“ASTONISHED AND DELIGHTED to hear my native language, and no less surprised at what this man said, I made answer that there were much greater misfortunes than that of which he complained. I told him in a few words of the horrors which I had endured, and fainted a second time. He carried me to a neighboring house, put me to bed, gave me food, waited upon me, consoled me, flattered me; he told me that he had never seen any one so beautiful as I, and that he never so much regretted the loss of what it was impossible to recover.

“ ‘I was born at Naples,’ said he, ‘there they geld two or three thousand children every year; some die of the operation, others acquire a voice more beautiful than that of women, and others are raised to offices of state. This operation was performed on me with great success and I was chapel musician to madam, the Princess of Palestrina.’

“ ‘To my mother!’ cried I.

“ ‘Your mother!’ cried he, weeping. ‘What! can you be that young princess whom I brought up until the age of six years, and who promised so early to be as beautiful as you?’

“ ‘It is I, indeed; but my mother lies four hundred yards hence, torn in quarters, under a heap of dead bodies.’

“I told him all my adventures, and he made me acquainted with his; telling me that he had been sent to the Emperor of Morocco by a Christian power, to conclude a treaty with that prince, in consequence of which he was to be furnished with military stores and ships to help to demolish the commerce of other Christian Governments.

“ ‘My mission is done,’ said the honest eunuch; ‘I go to embark for Ceuta, and will take you to Italy. Ma che sciagura d'essere senza coglioni!’ ”

“I thanked him with tears of commiseration; and instead of taking me to Italy he conducted me to Algiers, where he sold me to the Dey. Scarcely was I sold, than the plague which had made the tour of Africa, Asia, and Europe, broke out with great malignancy in Algiers. You have seen earthquakes; but pray, miss, have you ever had the plague?”

“Never,” answered Cunegonde.

“If you had,” said the old woman, “you would acknowledge that it is far more terrible than an earthquake. It is common in Africa, and I caught it. Imagine to yourself the distressed situation of the daughter of a Pope, only fifteen years old, who, in less than three months, had felt the miseries of poverty and slavery, had been ravished almost every day, had beheld her mother drawn in quarters, had experienced famine and war, and was dying of the plague in Algiers. I did not die, however, but my eunuch, and the Dey, and almost the whole seraglio of Algiers perished.

“As soon as the first fury of this terrible pestilence was over, a sale was made of the Dey's slaves; I was purchased by a merchant, and carried to Tunis; this man sold me to another merchant, who sold me again to another at Tripoli; from Tripoli I was sold to Alexandria, from Alexandria to Smyrna, and from Smyrna to Constantinople. At length I became the property of an Aga of the Janissaries, who was soon ordered away to the defence of Azof, then besieged by the Russians.

“The Aga, who was a very gallant man, took his whole seraglio with him, and lodged us in a small fort on the Palus Meotides, guarded by two black eunuchs and twenty soldiers. The Turks killed prodigious numbers of the Russians, but the latter had their revenge. Azof was destroyed by fire, the inhabitants put to the sword, neither sex nor age was spared; until there remained only our little fort, and the enemy wanted to starve us out. The twenty Janissaries had sworn they would never surrender. The extremities of famine to which they were reduced, obliged them to eat our two eunuchs, for fear of violating their oath. And at the end of a few days they resolved also to devour the women.

“We had a very pious and humane Iman, who preached an excellent sermon, exhorting them not to kill us all at once.

“ ‘Only cut off a buttock of each of those ladies,’ said he, ‘and you'll fare extremely well; if you must go to it again, there will be the same entertainment a few days hence; heaven will accept of so charitable an action, and send you relief.’

“He had great eloquence; he persuaded them; we underwent this terrible operation. The Iman applied the same balsam to us, as he does to children after circumcision; and we all nearly died.

“Scarcely had the Janissaries finished the repast with which we had furnished them, than the Russians came in flat-bottomed boats; not a Janissary escaped. The Russians paid no attention to the condition we were in. There are French surgeons in all parts of the world; one of them who was very clever took us under his care—he cured us; and as long as I live I shall remember that as soon as my wounds were healed he made proposals to me. He bid us all be of good cheer, telling us that the like had happened in many sieges, and that it was according to the laws of war.

“As soon as my companions could walk, they were obliged to set out for Moscow. I fell to the share of a Boyard who made me his gardener, and gave me twenty lashes a day. But this nobleman having in two years' time been broke upon the wheel along with thirty more Boyards for some broils at court, I profited by that event; I fled. I traversed all Russia; I was a long time an inn-holder's servant at Riga, the same at Rostock, at Vismar, at Leipzig, at Cassel, at Utrecht, at Leyden, at the Hague, at Rotterdam. I waxed old in misery and disgrace, having only one-half of my posteriors, and always remembering I was a Pope's daughter. A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? to detest existence and yet to cling to one's existence? in brief, to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?

“In the different countries which it has been my lot to traverse, and the numerous inns where I have been servant, I have taken notice of a vast number of people who held their own existence in abhorrence, and yet I never knew of more than eight who voluntarily put an end to their misery; three negroes, four Englishmen, and a German professor named Robek. I ended by being servant to the Jew, Don Issachar, who placed me near your presence, my fair lady. I am determined to share your fate, and have been much more affected with your misfortunes than with my own. I would never even have spoken to you of my misfortunes, had you not piqued me a little, and if it were not customary to tell stories on board a ship in order to pass away the time. In short, Miss Cunegonde, I have had experience, I know the world; therefore I advise you to divert yourself, and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story; and if there be one of them all, that has not cursed his life many a time, that has not frequently looked upon himself as the unhappiest of mortals, I give you leave to throw me headforemost into the sea.”


  1. Recall that in Chapter X, when the old woman began telling this story, she did so because she wanted to prove that Cunegonde had never experienced true suffering in the way the old woman had. Yet here she claims that Cunegonde's misfortunes have been more affecting or moving than her own. Since she can't have it both ways, it would appear that she's using this story to elicit sympathy from her companions, who might otherwise seek to get rid of her.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. Johan Robeck, a Swedish-German philosopher who wrote an essay that legitimized suicide from a theological perspective. His primary argument was that life was a gift from God, and that, as a gift, we are free to dispense with it as we please. He himself committed suicide in 1739 by drowning himself in a river near Bremen, Germany, the allusion to which builds on the themes of death and religion in the book.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Rotterdam is a city in Southern Holland, or the Netherlands. Notice how Voltaire uses this sentence both to establish the passage of time and the old woman's movement from East to West, reversing the trip she took at the beginning of this chapter and brining her back to Western Europe after a long journey abroad.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. A Boyar, a member of the Russian aristocracy. In the 17th Century and up until 1861, when serfdom was abolished, Russia was still a feudal society, and aristocratic landowners like this Boyard had many slaves like the old woman, in addition to overseeing thousands of serfs, or peasants, who worked the land for them. Tensions caused by this system contributed to the unrest that caused the Russian Revolution in 1917.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. A "balsam" is an aromatic oil or resin, typically used in medicine to treat wounds or sores. Often, it's associated with a specific substance that has been dissolved in oil or turpentine, as in balsam of aniseed, sulphur, etc. Medieval medical sources list the balsam of Capahu or Capivi as the one used after circumcision, but it's unclear exactly what kind of balsam the old woman is referring to here.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. In Muslim communities, women are considered subservient to men, which reduces their status to a second sex that's bound to obey the laws of males, however unjust those laws may be. Thus, though they are all starving, the Janissaries choose to devour the women rather than sacrifice one of their own, both out of a sense of camaraderie and their enduring sexism.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. An Iman, or Imam, is the leader of a mosque and the one who guides Muslims in prayer. Within smaller Muslim communities, the Imam was considered the highest local authority, which would make this Imam, though lesser in military rank than the Aga, still more powerful than the Janissaries, who were obliged to listen to him.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. An ancient name for the Mer d'Azof or the Sea of Azof, which we now think of as a northern extension of the Black Sea. Notice how the old woman refuses to use an Eastern word (Azof) and instead falls back on the Roman name, Palus Meotides, which would've fallen out of fashion by the time of this book's writing. This is a byproduct of the colonialism that sought to Westernize Eastern cultures.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. The Janissaries were a select group of prisoners and Christians who were forced to fight for the Ottoman Empire and convert to Islam in the 14th Century. An "aga" is a civil officer or military leader within the Muslim community, making an Aga of the Janissaries one of its many leaders. This passage traces the old woman's path from West to East, taking her to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. The word "seraglio" typically refers to a house or to a part of a house where Muslim women are secluded, but may also refer to a harem or a polygamous household. It's unclear from this line whether the old woman is referring to the former or the latter.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. The Bubonic Plague, which killed off some 25 to 50 million people in Europe in the 13th and 14th Centuries. It was also known as the Black Death and can still be found in certain parts of Africa. In the 17th Century, when this book is set, there was no major outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which makes the old woman's statements factually inaccurate.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. "Dey" was the title given to the ruler of the regency of Algiers under the Ottoman Empire from 1671 to 1830, when the French conquered Algeria. It's highly unlikely, however, that a mere eunuch would have the opportunity to sell a woman to the king or any of his subordinates. The old woman's story has, in time, become fantastical beyond belief, but still keeps with the logic of the book as a whole.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. Some read this line as further indication that the old woman is lying. If she's really the daughter of the Princess, then this man, who worked for the Princess should recognize her, if not because he raised her until the age of six, then because her face would've been well-known within the kingdom.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. The word "geld" refers to castration or emasculation. During the Renaissance, young boys were "gelded" to keep their voices from cracking when they hit puberty, thus preserving their young, high voices, which were highly prized on the stage. This castration process was not typically undertaken willingly by the young boys, who regretted the loss of their genitalia, as the eunuch does here.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor