Abishag’s Revenge

Steven Shapin

  • Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer by David Boyd Haycock
    Yale, 308 pp, £18.99, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 11778 3

Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.

Her name was Abishag. She was of the tribe of Issachar, from the village of Shunem, and, for that reason, was known as a Shunammite. The writer of the Book of Kings is at pains to tell us that David did not, so to speak, ‘have sexual relations with that woman’: she ‘cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.’ Abishag’s job was to keep the old man warm and moist, which the mere nearness of her youthful breath might do. She lay in his bosom to extend not his member but his life. Into modern times, doctors prescribed ‘Shunamitism’ for just that purpose. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon approved King David’s practice, suggesting, however, that puppies might serve as well as young virgins. A bit later, the English physician Thomas Sydenham recommended Shunamitism to his patients, as did the Dutch medical professor Hermann Boerhaave and the German Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland in the 18th century. James Copeland, an English medical authority who was quoted as late as the 20th century on ‘the transference of vital power’, warned that young women married to old men suffered debilitation and shortened longevity: ‘These facts are often well known to the aged themselves, who consider the indulgence favourable to longevity, and thereby often illustrate the selfishness which in some persons increases with their years.’ Oddly, there do not seem to be any records of the medically supervised rejuvenescence of old women by the breath of boys in bed.

The Book of Psalms allows us 70 years, or maybe 80 if our constitution is especially strong, but that span was much diminished from what it once had been. The cause of this sad decline was bad diet. The fruit of the tree from which Adam and Eve were permitted to eat conferred immortality; the forbidden fruit gave knowledge of good and evil; and the price paid for dietary indiscretion was expulsion from paradise and, therefore, from access to the Tree of Life. No more low-hanging fruit: from then on we had to hunt, farm and cook. The Earth itself was injured by original sin: it became less fertile and its produce less nourishing, taking a toll on human longevity. The patriarchs were not immortal, but they were built to last. Methuselah was out in the nervous 900s, and the Deluge further sapped the world’s fertility and men’s allotted years. Noah’s offspring continued the unhappy decline: Abraham died at 175, but, by the psalmist’s time, threescore years and ten was all we were meant to expect. Worse followed, and 17th-century Englishmen were generally convinced that they were less strongly made, less healthy and less long-lived than the heroes of Agincourt.

Despite the post-lapsarian decline, stories of remarkably aged specimens of humanity continued to circulate. In the early 17th century, there was said to be a troupe of 12 still spry Herefordshire morris dancers whose combined age was 1200 years. But the most celebrated early modern ancient was Old Tom Parr, who fascinated English physicians and natural philosophers by living to 152 – or so it was widely believed – having fathered a child at 100 and married for a second time at 122. The old man was famous enough to be presented to the king, who ordered the royal physician William Harvey to perform an autopsy on him when he died in 1635. He was buried at Westminster Abbey and a poem was written about him by a forerunner of William McGonagall:

He is a Wonder, worthy Admiration,
He’s (in these times fill’d with Iniquity)
No Antiquary, but Antiquity;
For his Longevity’s of such extent,
That he’s a living mortal Monument.

Old Parr has remained famous enough to have a whisky named after him – fittingly, since uisge beatha is Gaelic for ‘water of life’.

How did Old Parr do it? Can we still learn something from him? What are the possibilities for extending our lives? Is immortality now finally, really round the corner? These days, dreams of eternal or vastly extended life bounce about between the worlds of Jewish jokes, genomics and the wilder shores of gerontology. Mel Brooks’s ‘2000-year-old man’ had a sharp memory. Did he know Joan of Arc? ‘Know her? I went with her!’ And Robin Hood? ‘Lovely man. Ran around the forest. Took from everybody and kept it.’ Dietary secrets of long life? ‘Nectarines: a hell of a fruit. Not too cold, not too hot, you know. Just nice.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in