In the days before Viagra, medieval and early modern Europeans relied on a number of natural sexual stimulants. One of the most effective – but also most notorious – was ‘Spanish fly’, a substance produced by crushing green blister beetles into a powder.
The active chemical compound in ‘Spanish fly’ is cantharidin, which is produced by the beetles as a defence mechanism. If ingested by humans it causes itching and irritation around the body but particularly in the genitalia and urinary tract of men.
Scores of European doctors prescribed cantharidin for sexual dysfunction and a range of health issues, without fully understanding its workings or dangers. There are several historical cases of cantharide medicines producing satyriasis (excessive sexual lust) or priapism (permanent erection). One case from the mid 18th century apparently proved fatal:
“A doctor in Orange named Chauvel was called to Caderousse, a small town near his home, in 1758. There he saw a man suffering from a similar disease. At the doorway of the house, he found the sick man’s wife, who complained to him about the furious lust of her husband, who had ridden her 40 times in one night, and whose private parts were always swollen.”
“The husband’s evil lusts came from a beverage similar to one given him by a woman at the hospital, to cure the intense fever that had afflicted him. But he fell into such a frenzy that others had to tie him up, as if he were possessed by the Devil… While Dr Chauvel was still present a local priest came to exorcise him, while the patient begged to be left to die. The women wrapped him in a sheet damp with water and vinegar until the following day…”
On their return the following day the patient’s “furious lust” had abated – but only because he was dead. From Chauvel’s description it is unclear whether he was murdered, mutilated after death – or perhaps died during a bizarre act of auto-fellatio:
“…He was dead, as stiff as a corpse. In his gaping mouth, with teeth bared, they found his gangrenous penis.”