What is this lead ring?
December 16, 2009 8:17 PM   Subscribe

In this excerpt from Beloved Son Felix, there is a description of a body that they have disinterred for an autopsy. They find a lead ring which causes disgust. What would the lead ring be?

The relevant part:
On opening the winding sheet in which the body was sewn, we found a woman with a congenital deformity of the legs, the two feet turned inward. We did an autopsy and found, among other curiosities, various veins vasorum spermaticorum, which were not deformed, but followed the curve of the legs toward the buttocks. She had a lead ring, and as I detest these, it added to my disgust.
Surely not a lead ring on her finger, that wouldn't cause such detestation, would it? Could it be that it was some sort of device she wore because she had deformed legs?
posted by tellurian to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Possibly a ring pessary? Not lead now, but I believe some were in the past.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:26 PM on December 16, 2009

Lead rings were sometimes used as amulets, and I think there is a later superstition about them curing rheumatism. If this is correct then his disgust is because he disapproves of the practice or thinks it's quackery. But I can't put my hand to any solid reference at the moment.
posted by Flitcraft at 8:55 PM on December 16, 2009

Thanks for the lead LittleMissCranky but I'm finding it almost impossible to google because of lead (the metal) and lead (to culminate in).
posted by tellurian at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2009

A more prosaic possibility is that he detests it because it's cheap - tacky.
posted by Flitcraft at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2009

Possibly black magic?

The vasorum spermaticorum, BTW, are what are now called the seminiferous tubules or vas deferens, which makes this particular person doubly of interest.
posted by Pinback at 9:03 PM on December 16, 2009

Aha - it's probably a cramp ring! Right period and often made out of lead. I'll go with he detests it because it's superstitious quackery,
posted by Flitcraft at 9:06 PM on December 16, 2009

It could merely be a finger ring. A ring made of lead, for a poor person. Which this wealthy young man detests. He might be revolted by the thought of a poor person adorning themselves with such a cheap material, or of a poor person marrying.

His revulsion doesn't seem to extend to her physical deformities, and her varicose veins, so the idea of finding a pessary ring might merely be interesting to him, not disgusting.

I find it humorous that the writer described the bodysnatching process, the lying and illegal nature of it, the intimate study of a FRESH cadaver, yet is revolted by a humble decoration!

Also see

Lead rings of antiquity apparently could be made to resemble gold. He might detest the "fool's gold", that someone would be fooled (and poisoned!) by the base metal.

I thought perhaps there was something to do with a lead ring being thought to prevent the plague, which his mother and sisters apparently died of, and which also lead to him leaving his home and father. I couldn't find anything on that, however. my other thought was perhaps this woman was a "Bride of Christ", a nun, and the ring represented a false marriage to his mind.

But I think the "fool's gold" explanation might be closest here....
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 9:10 PM on December 16, 2009

Here is the original passage in the German of the time, if it helps anyone.
posted by gubo at 9:16 PM on December 16, 2009

Here is a "medieval lead ring" for sale on ebay. Direct link to photo.
posted by flug at 9:21 PM on December 16, 2009

There was also a superstition that rings made of lead coffin nails could prevent "the cramp"....

Lead rings were often worn by Catholics of the era, apparently....

I'm glad my ancestors in the Saint Denis area were long dust by the time this fellow began his studies!

A fascinating journal, all the same!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 9:23 PM on December 16, 2009

In this Flckr photo there is a vagina lead ring, in the foreground. I have no idea what it does or is for, but given the area of the body he was looking in, and some of the things some people express disgust over, it lead to that particular search.
posted by b33j at 9:27 PM on December 16, 2009

Jinx of the 2nd Law, he says that the lead ring "added to his disgust," which would imply that he was disgusted by the physical deformities and the vans deferens that he found in "her."

I'm guessing it's either the superstitious jewelry or a pessary.
posted by autoclavicle at 9:48 PM on December 16, 2009

Here is the original passage in the German of the time

"Sy hatte ein bligenen ring an" = "she had a lead ring on".

That is to say, this suggests she actually had the ring **on**, not just had it with her--as the English could be interpreted to mean.

By the way, my 16th Cent. German isn't nearly good enough to know the word "bleigenen" specifically. The translation above has it as "lead" and in modern German "Blei"= lead (the metal). So "bligenen ring" = "ring made out of lead" certainly is reasonable but it's also just possible there is some other obscure meaning of "bligen". In modern German it's more like "Bleiring" so "bligenen ring" is some kind of archaic formulation and its quite possible even the translator of this passage could have gotten it wrong.
posted by flug at 9:51 PM on December 16, 2009

Something called "Wormald's Lead Ring" referenced in 1879 for treatment of scrotal varicocele. This may be related to the pessary idea, above.
posted by Rumple at 10:19 PM on December 16, 2009

Just for comparison, here is another text that uses the word "bligenen":
vnde en yewelick hedde by sick legen enen bligenen breff.
This quote is in some kind of archaic germanic dialect. It is about the discovery of the graves of six archbishops in Bremen in 1420.

The quotation means something like "and each one (?) had lying by it a lead (?) tablet (?)." (Not sure if "tablet" is the right word, but definitely something with writing on it.) The lead tablet had the name and the date of death written on it.

A lead tablet would make sense in that context--which make me think that is indeed what "bligen" means.

As usual anyone who actually knows anything about these various dialects is invited to enlighten us further . . .
posted by flug at 10:53 PM on December 16, 2009

Regarding the original German: bligenen was indeed properly translated as lead, the element. See here for another use of the same form in a fragment of text from 1420, which is roughly contemporary with the text here.

At least in modern German, the wearing of a pessary is commonly rendered with tragen, not anhaben. The wearing of a finger ring can be rendered with either verb. Of course, that's modern German, so it's not exactly conclusive. Still, my vote is for a lead ring worn on the finger.
posted by jedicus at 10:54 PM on December 16, 2009

I think Rumple's onto it. From this biography of Thomas Wormald, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England: "He had some mechanical skill, for he invented a soft metal ring which was passed over the scrotum for the relief of varicocele, known as 'Wormald’s ring',..."
posted by nicwolff at 12:12 AM on December 17, 2009

Some historical gynecology (1870s) regarding lead pessaries.
posted by Sallyfur at 3:07 AM on December 17, 2009

I also found a German text mentioning a bleierner Ring (which is the modern German equivalent to bligener Ring). As others have already mentioned, it was apparently used as a pessary, the lead ring enclosed a rubber menbrane:
"...ein Pessar aus einer Gummimembrane, die von einem bleiernen Ring umschlossen war." (Geschichte der Sexualität).
I think the pessary interpretation is quite convincing.
posted by The Toad at 4:32 AM on December 17, 2009

The pessary idea seems about a zillion times more likely.

If you took all the pewter jewelry from the middle ages fell on you, dental records would be insufficient for them to ID you body. (Medieval Pewter Tokens and trinkets is one of my dream Jeopardy categories.) Even by the date in question, it's hard to imagine being disgusted by a base metal finger ring enough to comment on it.

It'd be like a doctor of today writing his memoirs and telling about the time where he came across a guy having a heart attack on the side of the road, mentioned that he was a five hundred pound career couch potato and then went on to say "to make matters worse, he was driving a car equipped with monoport fuel injection, which only served to reduce my opinion of the man."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:07 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Certainly pessaries have been used since at least the time of Hippocrates and one made of lead in the shape of a ring sounds plausible for the 1500s (though lead ring with a rubber diaphragm sounds much more like 1800s and almost certainly not 1500s; likewise Wormald's Ring is from the 1800s).

Here's a photo of various types & shapes of pessaries
for the morbidly curious.

However, I would have two issues about the pessary explanation:

- The phrase "hatte ein bligenen ring an"--"anhaben" does not sound like something you would do with a pessary. Again I'm far from an expert in the German language of that period (though I'll confess to fair bit of reading around in that period back in the undergrad days) but to my ear it sounds pretty much as strange as if you said the equivalent in English: "She had a lead ring on" and meant "she was wearing a lead pessary". A pessary ring would be "worn" or "inserted" or something--not "had on".

(In short, what jedicus said above.)

- Why would a medical student who routinely uses technical terms like "vasorum spermaticorum" use the common word "ring" instead of a technical/medical term for pessary?

And anyway, why would he detest a pessary?

In short, reading the English translation I would say a lead ring pessary is at least a possibility but in looking the the original that would be a very, very strained interpretation.

It seems more likely that, as a rational and scientifically minded medical student (same article machine-translated into English) he would detest superstitious nonsense like a cramp ring made out of a coffin nail. That sounds like the sort of very common object that would get his dander up every single time he saw one.
posted by flug at 11:39 AM on December 17, 2009

I'm still intrigued by the apparent description of male sexual characteristics to this female as a possible source of his disgust, is this likely to be a translation issue as well? Is vasorum spermaticorum varicose veins or the vas deferens or other male plumbing? Googling I only see Latin, or reference to this document, or reference to male sexual anatomy - not to varicose veins.

Lead rings (probably as in bracelets not as in finger-rings) are also a known European folk-aid for rheumatism, though copper ones are better known.
posted by Rumple at 12:20 PM on December 17, 2009

I'm still intrigued by the apparent description of male sexual characteristics to this female as a possible source of his disgust, is this likely to be a translation issue as well

I don't know anything about the technical terms, particularly what "vasorum spermaticorum" means--except generically via the latin roots, where vasorum seems to mean "of the vessels" and spermaticorum means "of the sperm". So altogether something like "seminal vessels" maybe? And whether this means, say, vessels semen flows through, or blood vessels that serve that part of the anatomy, or something else, I couldn't say.

Also "veins vasorum spermaticorum" seems to be a bit of a "helper translation" in that there is no separate word in the German for "vein"--but vasorum could well refer to a vein or blood vessel of some sort and that is what the translator seems to think.

But looking at the original text more carefully, I do think the translation is a bit misleading and maybe some of the misleading bits of the translation have led a bunch of confusion.

So here is my try at translating a couple of key sentences:
  • "Die anatormierten wir und fanden under andrem auch ettlich oderen alss vasorum spermaticorum, die nit nitsich schlecht, sunder auch krum and by sitz giengen."
  • "We did an autopsy on her and found, among other things, various items of interest such as vasorum spermaticorum which were not dysfunctional but deformed as the legs were and went towards the rear."
The point he seems to be making is that, whatever these "vasorum spermaticorum" are, they are quite functional but just twisted or deformed out of their normal place--much as her legs and feet are, and twisted/deformed in the same general way and direction they were.

And, so far, no mention whatsoever of detestation or disgust.
  • "sy hatt ein bligenen ring an, dorab mir, wil ich sy haßen von natur, seer unlustet."
  • "She had a lead ring on, which I made me feel disgusted, because I abhor them by nature."
The sense of this as near as I can tell is that the dislike (or disgust) comes from the ring. There is no sense whatsoever that he was already feeling a bunch of disgust and now this ring added to it.

It's simply a statement that he really hates this kind of ring (whatever it is) and when he saw it, it made him feel very disgusted ("mir seer unlustet").

So to answer the question, I can't see any indication in the original text that the vasorum spermaticorum are any source of the disgust. The lead ring is the complete source and cause of his disgust.

Here I must again insert my standard disclaimer, that this is written in a 16th Century Allemannic German dialect which makes it at least three times removed from my own mother tongue (ie, German is a second language for me, a dialect more remote yet, and the 16th Century version of that dialect even more so. So any & all corrections are more than welcome!
posted by flug at 9:24 PM on December 17, 2009

  • "sy hatt ein bligenen ring an, dorab mir, wil ich sy haßen von natur, seer unlustet."
  • "She had a lead ring on, which I made me feel disgusted*, because I abhor* them by nature."
I think another little quirk of the translation (including my own above--note the words marked with asterisks) may make this passage more mysterious than necessary to English speakers.

The two words he uses to discuss his dismay about the ring are "unlusten" and "haßen".
  • "lusten" means "want" or "desire" and "unlusten" is the opposite of that. So "dislike". He does us an intensifier "seer"--so make that "very much dislike".
  • "haßen" is cognate with English "hate"--so hate, detest, abhor.
But in English when we hear "detest" and particularly "disgust"--especially given the context here--we start to think about something that is viscerally disgusting, maybe something that would make you feel like puking.

That undertone doesn't seem to be in the original at all. It's more along the lines of strong dislike--related to the object itself in a general way and not particularly because it is associated with a corpse and autopsy--than visceral disgust.

Which (IMHO) makes it easier to believe that a simple object like a ring--maybe just because of superstitious associations with it or the like--might lead to that feeling.
posted by flug at 7:33 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow! Thank you so much to those that contibuted to this conundrum, I learnt a lot. In particular flug (and gubo's link to the original) - are above and beyond my expectations. My original scepticism about a simple lead ring (worn on a finger) leading to disgust is disavowed.
posted by tellurian at 9:02 PM on December 18, 2009

contibuted? WTH! it's like the end of the world here, 8:35 and dark as hell.
posted by tellurian at 1:37 AM on December 19, 2009

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