One curious commentary on the text is that Elizabeth should be so fond of investigating into the authorship of the exhalation in question, when she was inordinately fond of strong and sweet perfumes; in fact, she was responsible for the tremendous increase in importations of scents into England during her reign.
“Ye boke of ye sieur Michael de Montaine”
There is a curious admixture of error and misunderstanding in this part of the sketch. In the first place, the story is borrowed from Montaigne, where it is told inaccurately, and then further corrupted in the telling.
It was not the good widows of Perigord who wore the phallus upon their coifs; it was the young married women, of the district near Montaigne’s home, who paraded it to view upon their foreheads, as a symbol, says our essayist, “of the joy they derived therefrom.” If they became widows, they reversed its position, and covered it up with the rest of their head-dress.
The “emperor” mentioned was not an emperor; he was Procolus, a native of Albengue, on the Genoese coast, who, with Bonosus, led the unsuccessful rebellion in Gaul against Emperor Probus. Even so keen a commentator as Cotton has failed to note the error.
The empress (Montaigne does not say “his empress”) was Messalina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius, who was uncle of Caligula and foster-father to Nero. Furthermore, in her case the charge is that she copulated with twenty-five in a single night, and not twenty-two, as appears in the text. Montaigne is right in his statistics, if original sources are correct, whereas the author erred in transcribing the incident.
As for Proculus, it has been noted that he was associated with Bonosus, who was as renowned in the field of Bacchus as was Proculus in that of Venus (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). The feat of Proculus is told in his own words, in Vopiscus, (Hist. Augustine, p. 246) where he recounts having captured one hundred Sarmatian virgins, and unmaidened ten of them in one night, together with the happenings subsequent thereto.
Concerning Messalina, there appears to be no question but that she was a nymphomaniac, and that, while Empress of Rome, she participated in some fearful debaucheries. The question is what to believe, for much that we have heard about her is almost certainly apocryphal.
The author from whom Montaigne took his facts is the elder Pliny, who, in his Natural History, Book X, Chapter 83, says, “Other animals become sated with veneral pleasures; man hardly knows any satiety. Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace.”