Bonking horses or death on the loo?
DEATH OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
Last week I waffled on for so long about Catherine the Great that we never actually got to the bit for which she is – somewhat unfortunately – most widely remembered: The alleged scandalous manner of her death.
The most scandalous, most deliciously gutter press version is of course that she died trying to have sex with a horse.
Being famous for her sexual appetites that story fitted into the general picture of insatiably nymphomaniac Catherine.
The supposed detail was that a stallion was being lowered onto the lady when the harness holding the horse broke and the beast fell on top of her, killing her.
The lesser story is that she died on the loo. Being, by the age of 68 a lady of generous proportions, it is suggested that her weight broke the bowl, it shattered, she fell, she died.
It is probable, however, that – on the weight of evidence, neither wonderfully salacious story is actually correct.
We need to place the stories in the context of the history of propaganda and political character assassination by cartoon or deliberately started rumour.
These days, we are used to propaganda being used by one nation against another:
In WWI the Allies produced many cartoons depicting the German Kaiser and his Pickelhaube helmeted soldiers raping longhaired Belgian ladies in advanced stages of undress.
In WWII The Nazis used a picture of Winston Churchill firing a tommy-gun at a practice range to advance the notion that Churchill was a gangster / war monger.
The Allies in return produced many a cartoon of Adolf Hitler eating his carpet or doing affectionate things with Blondie, his German shepherd.
At the time of Catherine the Great, the 18th century, this was also considered standard stuff to use in propaganda.
Catherine’s contemporary Marie Antoinette of France was depicted in the republican broadsheets as a sort of insatiable Messalina.
So, as Russia became a world power and started to be a threat to the Western Powers in Europe (Prussia, France, Austria and Great Britain) so the propaganda against what was basically an enemy country intensified accordingly.
The easiest target was the leader of that country i.e. Catherine.
The horse story sort of fitted in with the facts that Catherine, unusual for the time, liked to ride horses astride rather than ladylike sidesaddle and that she apparently spent considerable time alone in the stables.
Because starting a rumour about bonking a stablehand would not have raised even an eyebrow in 18th c Europe, the propaganda story had to be amped up. Hence It wasn’t a huge jump from there to eventually concoct a story to bonking a horse.
Apart from being salacious and selling newspapers it worked nicely as a put-down of the leader of an enemy nation.
Historically, Sex was rarely used as a propaganda tool against male rulers unless (as in the case of anti-Hitler’s one testicle stories) it implied lack of sexual prowess.
Against female rulers, however (as we have seen with Marie Antoinette), it was a powerful technique and fitted with the (in the Julia Gillard view of history) generally misogynist atmosphere of politics and society at the time.
The less interesting story of Catherine dying on the toilet fits into the same propaganda package. Apart from suggesting bestiality there are probably no better ways of putting down an impressive emperor or empress than by putting about the story that she died on the loo. It works because it shatters the aura of the imperial power and grandeur of that leader.
So nowadays historians generally agree that regarding the death of Catherine the Great there was probably no fatally disastrous attempt to dance horizontal tango with a horse or come to some ignominious end on the toilet. After