The venerable condoms of Dudley Castle

In 1646, during the English Civil Wars, 200 Royalist troops surrendered at Dudley Castle in Warwickshire. As it turned out, they were the castle’s last residents, and clues to their lavish life style were left in the garderobes (latrines), a system of stone chutes that dropped 30 feet from the second floor of the castle to pits for garbage and excrement.

A few years ago archaeologists eased themselves into the dank pits and hoisted up peaty deposits in bags. Finding the pieces in the muck is a bit like panning for gold, says Stephanie Ratkai, one of the archaeologists. The garderobes yielded remnants of bygone feasts — venison, lamb, boar, and rabbit bones. But the biggest find by far was a crumpled tangle of five tissue-thin brown fragments not unlike tobacco leaves.

The baffled Ratkai sent the fragments to a leather conservator named Chris Calman. As he carefully fingered them, he noticed that they had a natural roundness and that they were made of animal tissue, probably an internal membrane. To clean them, he fitted them snugly over large thimbles. ”As I was doing it,” says Calman, ”I suddenly realized what they were.” He rang up Ratkai and said, ”You might be very interested to know you have five used condoms here.”

Ratkai believes that these condoms are the oldest ones made of animal gut in the United Kingdom — possibly the world. According to a new book on the history of condoms, Johnny Come Lately, the runners- up in the U.K. are the British Museum’s late eighteenth century specimens. Seamless and secured at the open end with a silk ribbon, these condoms were found among the papers of an aristocratic English family who requested that the owner’s name never be divulged, and are now housed in a cabinet marked ”museum secretum” among items deemed too erotic for general display.

But condoms (named after the apocryphal Dr. Condom, or Condon, or something of the sort, who is said to have made one for Charles II) existed long before either Dr. Condom or these antique British specimens. Two thousand years ago the Chinese made them out of oiled silk paper. Roman soldiers were reputed to have made condoms from the muscles of dead foes. And in medieval times outbreaks of syphilis increased the use of condoms, much as the AIDS epidemic is doing now.

By the nineteenth century most condoms were made of animal intestine that was soaked in water, then turned inside out, soaked in a weak alkaline solution, scraped, disinfected with vapor from burning brimstone, washed, blown up, dried, cut to a length of six or seven inches, and ribboned at the open end. Clearly they weren’t playthings of the poor.

Even if the Dudley Castle condoms aren’t the earliest, they’re certainly among the sturdiest. Indeed, this anonymous eighteenth century English verse might very well have been written to honor the find at the bottom of Dudley’s garderobes:

O matchless condon thous’t secured thy fame

To last as long as condon name.

Such mighty things are by thy influence done,

Thou ha’st the foremost of this age out-run.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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