Recently I’ve had a pleasure to attend a conference in Ostrava, entitled: “Visualizing the Other in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art (1300–1550)”, so today I decided to write about otherness… in size. Not only in the Middle Ages.
But, of course, I will start with something medieval, as I am now in course of having lectures on latin paleography for the participants of calligraphy workshops. When I talk about script called Blackletter, I always present such a gothic calligraphic joke:
Blackletter is a specific script, quite edgy, and the letters “m”, “n”, “v”, “u” and “i” consist of almost identical forms; the text above, however difficult to read at first, reads:
Mimi numinum nivium minimi munium nimium vini muniminum imminui vivi minimum volunt.
This may be called a latin word play; it says that “The very short mimes of the gods of snow do not at all wish that during their lifetime the very great burden of the wine of the walls to be lightened”. It is actually a fragment of petition sent to the Senate in Rome, and in simple words it is a request for keeping a custom of bestowing those mimes with the wine from municipal vineyards. “The very short mimes” most likely refers to dwarfs.
Not long ago Peter Dinklage received his fourth Emmy Award for portraying Tyrion Lannister in the series “Game of Thrones”. The actor, born with achondroplasia (a genetic disorder that results in dwarfism), said: I count myself so fortunate to be a member of community that is nothing but all about tolerance and diversity, because no other place could I be standing on a stage like this.
Sadly, it is true – in many publications we may find information that in the past centuries dwarfs were considered rather domestic pets than people: they provided entertainment at courts, but also were purchased or presented as precious gifts. Fortunately, that was not always the case.
At first, let’s get back to the ancient Egypt – although in that culture people of short stature were not discriminated, but rather considered as gifted by the gods; in fact, there were even dwarven deities. A very interesting case is a man named Seneb – his statue (accompanied by his wife and two children) is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Seneb lived in the mid-third millennium B.C. and had a high social rank at royal court; moreover, he was an important priest and his wife Senetites was a priestess. They had three children together. They were rich (they had a lot of cattle and many palaces), and we know that because in 1926 their tomb was discovered at the famous necropolis in Giza, close to the pyramids of Pharaohs. The sculpture comes from that tomb, and the reliefs inside tell us about Seneb and his family.
Unfortunately, sometimes we do not have such detailed information about people depicted in survived works of art. A very interesting case is Turold the Dwarf, depicted in a famous Bayeux Tapestry. I will probably write about that piece of art in a separate post, so now just to sum up: it is an embroidered cloth dating back to the 11th century, depicting the history of the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror and culminating in the Battle of Hastings of 1066.
All together, the embroidery depicts over 600 people (!), but only 15 are described with their names. Mostly those are the main characters of that war, easy to identify, but some of them remains mysterious. That also concerns a dwarf called Turold.
Undoubtedly, the person in question has this condition: his head is large and his limbs are short. It is not a child, but a grown man, as he has a beard and mustache. He holds two horses – so he is rather strong. Above his head we may see his name – the inscription is lowered so we should not assume that it refers to any other person. Turold is depicted in a scene where the messengers of duke William came to Guy I, Count of Ponthieu – so it is settled in a nowadays northern France. Unfortunately, Turold was rather a popular name among 11th-century Normans and we can not identify this particular one among many Turolds mentioned in survived sources of the time. Most of the scholars assume, considering the costume of Turold from the Tapestry, that he was a court artist – so called jongleur: that could have been an acrobat, a singer, a musician, an actor, or a poet. The rank of such an artist may have been quite high; actually, William the Conquerer appreciated those providing entertainment. As we know from survived sources, jongleur named Berdic received from duke William three villages in Wales! In the medieval vernacular romances we may read about dwarven poets and musicians whose performances were of the highest quality. Was Turion of Bayeux tapestry also a poet or a singer? We do not know that, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that a famous “Chancon de Roland” in a 12th-century manuscript kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is described as a work of… some Turold! The “Chancon de Roland” is dated by scholars to the late 11th century, and most likely it was written by a Frenchman, either in northern France or in England after the Norman conquest. So would it be possible that Turold the Dwarf from Bayeux Tapestry is actually the author of a medieval masterpiece of literature? He must have been an important person, most likely of significant achievements – an ordinary court artist would not be inscribed with his name as only one of few people in this artwork.
Finally, I would like to tell you about a famous dwarven woman, whose image unfortunately did not survive. She was Polish, her name was Dorothy, and she was called Dosia. Her surname was most likely Ostrolska (although different spelling appears in the sources) and she was one of many dwarfs at the court of Polish queen, Bona Sforza. In 1562 Dosia went to Finland with princess Catherine Jagiellon, as Catherine married Finnish duke John III Vasa. When the couple was imprisoned in Gripsholm castle by the king of Sweden, Eric XIV, Dosia stayed with them and was a nanny to their children, born in prison. Finally Catherine and John were released; Eric XIV of Sweden lost his crown and was imprisoned, while John Vasa took the throne and became king of Sweden. Meanwhile, Dosia acquired prestigious position of the housekeeper of the court and educator of prince Sigismudus (future king of Poland, Sigismundus III Vasa). Dosia also corresponded with nobility and we may say that she was an informal secretary of queen Catherine. As the letters of Dosia to Sophia Jagiellon, duchess of Brunswick, survived, we may follow the nuances of the games of Swedish throne. We also know that in the 16th-century Central Europe a woman (and a dwarf) may have had quite a career on a royal court. It is a pity we do not know how Dosia looked like – I like to believe that she held her head high, just as Maria Bárbola, dwarven lady of a Spanish court, portrayed by Diego Velázquez among maids surrounding Infanta Margaret Theresa.
However, survived letters by Dosia prove that sometimes she had troubles remaining dignified; on 20th April 1573 she wrote to Sophia duchess of Bruswick: “Duchess, Your Grace, I have to complain about His Majesty the Prince, because he overpowers me; he is already taller then me, and I reach only to his neck now; so when His Majesty the Prince chases me, I have to run away because when he catches me, he overpowers me. However, I have trick for that: when His Majesty the Prince chases me, I just sit down on the ground and so he can do nothing.” That is how future Polish king Sigismundus III Vasa played with his tutor when he was 7 years old.
On the mysterious figure from Bayeux Tapestry I recommend you an article “Turold the Dwarf” at erenow.net.
Also, as an addition to this post, I recommend you a Czech song “Řiditel autobusu” by a band The Tap Tap. The song was based on the experience of the drummer from that band (who also sings here), Marek Valenta; due to his condition, he uses a device in a form of a small bicycle, to move faster around the city. Unfortunately, it is forbidden in Czechia to get into the bus with an actual bicycle; and so many times he was refused enter by the bus drivers (řiditel in Czech), even though in his case a bicycle is rather an aid like a wheelchair (which, of course, is admitted in Czech buses). English translation of the song is available HERE; and the song is just adorable, so here we go: