Remember when you were little and you secretly kind of envied that kid who broke his arm and got a sweet cast put on it? Yeah so this story is kind of like that, except it involves adults instead of children, and instead of a broken arm it’s a torturous, un-anesthetized butt surgery that was likely to result in incontinence or death.
By 1686, the sore lump that had been developing in King Louis XIV’s bum had progressed to the point that he could no longer sit, and the poops that he and his doctors had so lovingly and inexplicably documented throughout his reign had become severely painful. When the prescribed regimen of four enemas a day and slatherings of weird lotions and potions failed to improve his condition, he was forced to seek treatment from a surgeon, Charles-Francois Felix.
Mind you, no surgeon had ever successfully repaired an anal fistula at that point in history, and even the simplest of surgeries often led to sepsis and death. Physicians and apothecaries may not have known anything about how the human body works either, but at least their blood-letting treatments and tinctures of mercury were unlikely to kill the patient if doled out conservatively; surgeries, on the other hand, frequently did. In fact, the official job title at the time was “barber-surgeon,” because practically the only skill required was the ability to cut stuff. Among other terrifying practices, it was standard procedure for barber-surgeons to reuse dirty instruments from one patient to the next. Accordingly, their patient mortality rates typically ranged from “only a little worse than doing nothing at all” to “slightly better than handing the scalpel over to a serial killer.”
But luckily Dr. Felix turned out to be a far more conscientious surgeon than his contemporaries. He told the King he would be willing to operate … but not for another few months. He needed some time to work out the kinks of this novel procedure.
After six months of hacking away at commoners (and ducking out in the middle of the night to bury many of them), Felix was finally confident enough to turn his scalpel to the royal asshole. On the morning of November 18, 1686, four apothecaries held the un-anesthetized King on a daybed in his Versailles chambers. Felix succeeded in repairing the fistula, and even managed not to kill the patient this time.
The King’s courtiers were stunned as the King was able to receive ambassadors the very next day. By springtime he was healed and riding a horse again. All of France was astonished by the King’s remarkable recovery.
The surgery was so successful, in fact, that elaborate celebrations were hosted throughout the country. Meanwhile, back at Versailles, the King’s courtiers were so delighted (and/or desperately sycophantic) that they declared 1686 the Year of the Fistula (“L’annee de la Fistule”). Somehow that is not even the most ludicrous response from the royal entourage. Once Louis had his anal fistula surgically repaired, everyone wanted an anal fistula surgically repaired, whether they actually had one or not. It literally became fashionable among the aristocracy to have a sore, leaky butthole. Courtiers who were naturally blessed with a dysfunctional pooper immediately started begging the so-hot-right-now Dr. Felix to cut them open; those less fortunate had to make do by walking around Versailles with their perfectly healthy butts swathed in bandages. Hey, fake it till you make it, right?
Another consequence of this medical achievement — one that’s infinitely less amusing but of actual historical significance — was that it also caused a shift in how the public viewed the field of surgery. Up to this point in time, barber-surgeons were essentially looked at as tradesmen, a distant second in prestige to their physician counterparts. After L’annee de la Fistule, though, surgery began to be viewed as a profession that required knowledge and intelligence, not just the ability to cut through human tissue.
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