Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Conjoined Twins

from a 1499 woodcut by Jacob Locher
Hippocrates was aware of the phenomenon of conjoined twins, and offered an explanation: the male provided too much seed for just one being and yet not enough for two.

Whatever the reason, antiquity and the Middle Ages were well acquainted with this occurrence. Not everyone would have had opportunity to see an example of conjoined twins—there's no evidence that Hippocrates himself ever saw or "treated" such a case—but some who did witness the phenomenon wrote about it. One eyewitness was Leo Diaconus, or Leo the Deacon.

Leo the Deacon was a Byzantine historian who was born about 950. After 992 he started a history of the Empire, for some reigns of which he is our only source. His writing style has been criticized, but his facts have not. He reports:
At this time male twins, who came from the region of Cappadocia, were wandering through many parts of the Roman Empire; I myself, who am writing these lines, have often seen them in Asia, a monstrous and novel wonder. For the various parts of their bodies were whole and complete, but their sides were attached from the armpit to the hip, uniting their bodies and combining them into one. And with the adjacent arms they embraced each other’s necks, and in the others carried staffs, on which they supported themselves as they walked. They were thirty years old and well developed physically, appearing youthful and vigorous. On long journeys they used to ride on a mule, sitting sideways on the saddle in the female fashion, and they had indescribably sweet and good dispositions. [Leo Diaconus]
The pair lived for several years, apparently making appearances around the Eastern Empire (perhaps earning money for some 10th century P.T.Barnum). Eventually, one twin died.
...skilled doctors separated them cleverly at the line of connection with the hope of saving the surviving one but after living three days he died also. [Theophanes Continuatus]
A history written in the 11th century has an illustrated page for the case of these conjoined twins. You can see the pictures here.

[Today's post is inspired by a recent item on, a blog I recommend.]

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