Three stories about Gerhard Van Swieten, an enlightenment doctor

Everybody knows
that baby's got no clothes

Story one. Van Swieten was the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. In 1740, Maria Theresa asked his advice about a terribly personal matter. She’d been married three years by then, and had no children. Van Swieten delivered the following famous prescription: “Praeteria censeo, vulvam Sacratissimae Majestatis, ante coitum, diutius esse titilandam.” That is, Maria Theresa should have her clitoris stimulated before coitus. It worked. Her shy husband Francis I tried it, and Maria Theresa went on to get pregnant a lot.

Such is the story recounted by Jonathan Margolis in O: the intimate history of orgasm. The story is almost certainly false. Van Swieten did not meet Maria Theresa until after treating her sister in 1744 – he probably came to Vienna in that year or a year later. By this time, Maria Theresa had had several children. Her first child was born before 1740, incidentally. Margolis did not, however, simply make up his facts. He’s repeating an old gynecologist’s tale. It was introduced into English by the indefatigable sexologist, Havelock Ellis, who know doubt took it from the indefatigable German sexologist, Iwan Bloch (1908). Bloch, in turn, might have taken it from several sources. It is odd that it had currency among German medical men, as biographies of Van Swieten were abundant enough that there was plenty of evidence that it couldn’t have happened. Interestingly, however, the latin prescription always appears with the story, although not always in the same wording. Bloch’s version is “titillatio clitoridis”, and he throws out the supporting story about Maria Theresa’s infertility. The story is the kind of thing that is repeated without being cited – I found one version in which Swieten urges Maria Theresa to stimulate her clitoris with a feather, for instance. Why would such a story gain such a confident currency? Wouldn’t it seem, at first glance, that no participant – neither Van Swieten nor Maria Theresa – would have any motive for setting such a consultation down on paper? That this story moves by itself is, I would say, putting on my best Freudian spectacles, evidence that it operates like a sort of dream in the collective male unconscious. The empress already is an irritant – a woman in power. The Herr doctor (to whom is ascribed, for no very good reason, powers of insight into sexuality that nothing in van Swieten’s career justifies) lords it over her, however, for she has one point, one little bud, of weakness – that royal clitoris – and of course he sees that the whole problem radiates from there.

It is rather amusing that as the story drifts along, it allots narrative places to all participants, depending on the season and ideological flavor of the month. Margolis, for instance, makes up a sexually naive husband, Prince Francis Stephen of Lorraine, to go with this story.

Story 2. Van Swieten was Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. She appointed him the head librarian of the court library. Being a product of enlightened Holland, a pupil of Boerhave, and an enemy of superstition, Van Swieten investigated the library and found it stuffed with alchemical, hermetic, spiritualist and astrological treatises. He had them all gathered up and burned, in spite of the howls of protests of all the hermetically inclined in Vienna.
This, too, is false. Although this story was reported in Van Swieten’s first biography, the Abbe Rautenstrauch, and it does reflect Van Swieten’s attitude towards ‘superstitious” garbage. At the time Rautenstrauch published his biography, this passage was protested by one of Van Swieten’s children, but his protests passed unheeded, and the act passed into the positivist legends of the 19th century. However, in 1906, the journal Janus published an article in which it published letters from Van Swieten showing that this action never happened.

Story 3. Van Swieten was the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. In 1755, a report reached the court that bodies had been disinterred from a cemetery and burned in Olmütz because of the local belief that they were vampires. Maria Theresa appointed Van Swieten to investigate. In 1756, the court produced a against the vampire belief and forbidding these kinds of practices.

This story is true. Van Swieten is not only known, in a shadowy way, in sexology, but has become quite the villain in popular books about vampirism, where he is depicted as a hidebound reactionary. However, that picture is just the reverse of the one promoted in Enlightenment Europe, where Van Swieten’s book against the vampire belief was absorbed into the Voltairian battle against popular belief, with its consequent persecution of “witches” and “sorcerers”.

For a great blog on Habsburg vampires, go to magia posthuma.