Peine Forte et Dure

April 1, 2009 § 1 Comment

Margaret and the Dragon

Margaret and the Dragon

I just read yesterday’s Times article about mammograms, telling me what I already knew, though statistics don’t stay in my head, and I’m not going to repeat them here; the point is that mammograms very often pick up noninvasive cancers that wouldn’t cause harm if left alone, subjecting women to fear and painful surgery, and that many of the killer types of breast cancer can’t be detected early enough to make a difference.

This makes me want to be like the British, who only get a mammogram once every three years (after 50). But I’m already like the British, since it’s been three years.

My gynecologist never asks. He’s only interested in obstetrics, so he probably doesn’t even notice my breasts. But when a woman is naked from the waist down and you’re shining a light up her twat, I suppose breasts are not the first things on your mind.

I hate the breast-squashing machines. They remind me of medieval torture devices like the iron maiden and the breast ripper (you really don’t want to know); The Pit and The Pendulum; all the tales of people bricked up inside of walls.

And now that I’ve spent a little time with Google—trying to find the details of other walls-closing-in stories that flicker vaguely in memory—mammogram machines will forever remind me of Saint Margaret Clitherow, executed for practicing Catholicism. She was arrested but refused to plead, because she didn’t want her young children to have to testify against her. Under the English law of the time, if a prisoner refuses three times to plead, she cannot be tried. She can however be subject to what was called peine forte et dure (punishment forceful [severe] and hard).

The magistrate condemned her in these words:
You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.

She was killed on Good Friday of 1586. The sergeants who were charged with the execution got a little queasy, maybe because she was pregnant, and hired a quartet of beggars to do the job. After she was stripped and laid down, a door was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 800 weight of rocks (.4 ton). The idea was that the sharp stone under her back would snap her spine when the heavy rocks were piled on. The rocks were added slowly to give her a chance to change her mind. She didn’t.

The only record of this hideous punishment being used in The United States was in Salem, MA, in 1692. An elderly farmer named Giles Corey mentioned that he had noticed his wife reading a book. This peculiar behavior drew the attention of the witch-hunters. As he attempted to protect his wife Martha, Corey was arrested. He also refused to plead because without a trial there could be no guilty verdict; therefore his land could not be seized, and could pass to his children. The automatic penalty for not pleading was the peine forte et dure. Like Margaret, he did not lose his composure. His last words were: “Put on more weight.”

Martha Corey was hanged for witchcraft.*

There are lots of other martyrs named Margaret—beheaded, drowned, shot by the Bolsheviks, hung by the hands in prisons, feet barely touching the ground…remind you of anything? They’re all interesting stories. They make me want to throw rocks at churches, and send Cheney in his wheelchair over a cliff.

Of all the tortured Margarets, my favorite is Saint Margaret of Antioch, about whom little is known for certain. She lived or was invented in the very early medieval period, said to have been a shepherdess born to a pagan priest. She consecrated her virginity to Christ, caught the eye of a powerful man and, as so often happens, was tortured and killed for spurning his advances. According to the legend, while languishing in prison, post-punishment, she was visited by Satan in the shape of a dragon. Not being in the mood to indulge in any of the fancy stuff he inspires in the minds of men, Satan simply ate her. She cut his belly open with her cross and escaped.

I’d like to have that cross. I’d take it with me when I get my mammogram.

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§ One Response to Peine Forte et Dure

  • litlove says:

    Last summer I found a lump in my breast and had my first cancer scare and my first mammogram. The mammogram was useless, given that it told no one anything they didn’t already know, and in the end I had to have a biopsy. Thankfully the result was simply that I am developing gristle in my middle age, but I found the whole process more traumatic than I can say. While I was going through it, my husband heard on the radio a report that way too many women are being biopsied after finding lumps because in fact the correlation between lumps and cancer is very low. So all this is to say I heartily agree that we need a better test than the ghastly breast-clamping machine. I loved the details about the saints, if that’s an appropriate way to talk about details that horrified me. Take that cross with you – it sounds tremendously useful.

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