Hemingway on Byzantine Castrati

Oliver for Neil Moran:

Some extracts:

Author: Nicole J. CAMASTRA (University of Georgia)

Hemingway's modern hymn

Music and the church as background sources for "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"

published in: The Hemingway Review (September 22, 2008)

Link to the unshortened article


The opening line of Hemingway's "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" conflates both Old and New Worlds: "In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that have now been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople" (CSS 298). Horace, the narrator, recognizes that this simile lacks credibility when he says, "no one believes this; but it is true" (298). Indeed, the analogy is difficult to accept, (1) but the short story's emphasis on castration and Christianity may help us to connect Kansas City to Constantinople via an obscure fact—the use of castrated boys in church choirs and the subsequent tradition of employing them in Italian opera had their inception in fifth-century Byzantium. Music and its historical relation to the church create a powerful means of understanding this strange story of a boy's defeat by "the flesh." As George Monteiro has noted, the title of "God Rest You" derives from a Christmas carol whose scriptural source is "the physician Luke's account of Satan's power over the flesh and the Savior's role in keeping men safe from that power" (208). The youth's sexual mutilation presents every reason to be dismayed, but only when taken out of musical context. Hemingway's "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" is a profound and complex prose hymn, celebrating the defeat necessary to negotiate faith in the modern world.



Castrati, also known as eunuchs, evirati, or musici, were males castrated before puberty to produce a singing voice with the range of a female soprano. Eunuchs were indispensable to the music, religion, and even politics of the Byzantine. Neil Moran's deft article "Byzantine Castrati" explains that although the "Byzantines doubtless generally harboured a certain antipathy or abhorrence" towards them, "the Byzantine state could not have functioned without its eunuchs".


The use of castrati in Byzantine churches such as the Hagia Sophia, or Great Church, ended with the conquest of 1204 and the "conversion of the Great Church to a Latin cathedral" (Moran 108). The disappearance of these professional singers had "wide-reaching consequences," creating a need for "new melodies to be composed" and altering the "musico-cultural situation" (Moran 111). The diaspora of castrati stretched into "the countryside [of] ... Russia, Trapezunt ... [and] southern Italy" (Moran 108).

Southern Italy would prove a haven for the castrati, and lead to their resurfacing in the 17th and 18th centuries, both in church music and the rising art form of opera.

The article discussed here:

Moran, Neil. 2002. “Byzantine Castrati.” Plainsong and Medieval Music 11 (02): 99–112. doi:10.1017/S0961137102002073.

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