Bladder stones and harpsichords


Every so often, a particularly colourful story or fact that you knew and thought to be true turns out to be without much foundation, or even to be an urban legend.

About thirty years ago, I heard a strange piece of music from the early eighteenth century called ‘Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille’. It was by Marin Marais, a musician at the French royal court in Versailles, and was a depiction in music of an operation for the removal of a bladder stone. These stones were quite frequent among the better off of the period, since they ate a lot of salted meat. The operation, known as a lithotomy, was a risky one – no anaesthetic, the patient starved for a few days beforehand, the surgical cut and removal of the stone done as fast as possible and the sealing of the wound with a hot iron. Many did not survive. In the 1690s, however, a new way of performing the operation was developed where the cut was much smaller and on the side of the body rather than at the front. This operation, a lateral lithotomy, was developed by a monk called Jacques Beaulieu and became very fashionable in French aristocratic circles around 1700. Marais himself is said to have undergone the operation successfully in his 60s.

According to the sleevenote of the album containing the Marais piece, Beaulieu was the original ‘Frere Jacques’ of nursery rhyme fame. I repeated this story for years, in the mode of ‘not many people know that’. More recently, alas, I discovered an article in the Journal of Urology (bedtime reading, naturally) which shows that there is not much foundation for this association, and that Beaulieu wasn’t even a real monk. What a shame!

Lots more information in an article by Dr. James L Franklin, written from a doctor’s point of view. The image of the score above is from this article.

The music is still there though, and here is a wonderfully melodramatic version of it.

– Niall Ó Ciosáin

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