Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.
Her name was Abishag. She was of the tribe of Issachar, from the village of Shunem, and, for that reason, was known as a Shunammite. The writer of the Book of Kings is at pains to tell us that David did not, so to speak, 'have sexual relations with that woman': she 'cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.' Abishag's job was to keep the old man warm and moist, which the mere nearness of her youthful breath might do. She lay in his bosom to extend not his member but his life. Into modern times, doctors prescribed 'Shunamitism' for just that purpose. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon approved King David's practice, suggesting, however, that puppies might serve as well as young virgins. A bit later, the English physician Thomas Sydenham recommended Shunamitism to his patients, as did the Dutch medical professor Hermann Boerhaave and the German Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland in the 18th century. James Copeland, an English medical authority who was quoted as late as the 20th century on 'the transference of vital power', warned that young women married to old men suffered debilitation and shortened longevity: 'These facts are often well known to the aged themselves, who consider the indulgence favourable to longevity, and thereby often illustrate the selfishness which in some persons increases with their years.' Oddly, there do not seem to be any records of the medically supervised rejuvenescence of old women by the breath of boys in bed.
LRB 26 March 2009 | PDF Download