Monday, February 20, 2012

Dwarfs in the courts of Europe in the early modern period

The diverse roles of dwarfs in early modern society - especially aristocratic society, appear surprisingly often in the pages of Medieval and Early Sources Online (MEMSO), often enough that the contradictory positions of aristocratic favour and aristocratic abuse that people affected by dwarfism found themselves in become readily apparent. Short stature opened doors into the richest houses of Europe for such people, but at the price of loss of liberty and/or the chance of leading anything like a normal life.

Dwarfs were welcomed into royal courts because of their novelty and even fashion value, where they lived beside other court peculiarities such as the court jester. For instance, Mary of Guise kept both a a female jester, called Serat, and a dwarf called Jane in Scotland during the 1530s.

The benefits of being at court were mixed at best, as the mentioning of dwarfs in the same breath as jesters suggests. In the court of Mantua the Marchioness viewed her two dwarfs in the same way she might have viewed hunting dogs - marrying them and then disposing of one of their children as a gift to a friend as she might have given a puppy.

Yet in other places, dwarfs were held with affection to the degree that they were allowed unusual liberties in aristocratic society. A dwarf named Jemmy [Jamie] was employed by the Steuarts of Grandtully at Murthly Castle in the early 19th century, where he was employed as keeper of the inner gatehouse, and worked on various tasks from weeding the court, counting the fowls sent as rent, and fetching mail.

Somehow, as well as these tasks, Jemmy acquired the liberty to 'make his appearance in the dining-room', at meal times, whereupon he would sit on the floor and make observations on the conversation, including remarks of 'caustic bitterness' against anything he heard with which he disagreed. He would also wander into some of the women's bedrooms before they were up in the morning, and talk to them 'until it was time to rise'.

Unfortunately, as the castle passed to a new master, Jemmy found himself in less tolerant surroundings. The new laird both hated and was hated by Jemmy, yet the laird stopped short of dismissing him entirely from his service.

Accordingly the Redbook of Grantully records that Jemmy spent his later life 'eating and making love to lady's-maids, and he died partly from the loss of his sweethearts, on whom he made verses, and partly from the discountenance of the cook'.

By the time he died, he had saved between £400 and £500 from his wages - a sum that the National Archives estimates as about £25,000 in today's money.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bad booze and beatings in medieval Oxford - The Scholastica Day 'riot'

Medieval boozers.
10 February 1355, town versus gown friction in Oxford reached an all time low. The St Scholastica Day Riot (surely a more proper name would be 'massacre') over bad beer wine erupted when a slanging match and a thrown tankard led the tavern owner and the mayor to call the townspeople to arms in retaliation. 2000 men raided Oxford colleges in search of the original instigators, killing 63 scholars. The scholars were hardly innocent in events either - two of them had provoked the retaliation by beating the tavern owner, then 200 had gathered around them and roughed up the mayor before the town finally responded. During the rioting as many as 30 townspeople were also killed, bringing the total deaths to as many as 93.

Despite the horrendous behaviour on both sides, only the townspeople were punished, and ordered to say mass every subsequent St Scholastica Day, and pay a fine of a penny for every scholar killed. Bad feeling continued for centuries to come, and in 1575 the university claimed 15 years breach of contract - even though the mass had been illegal since the accession of Elizabeth I. The payment of fines continued until 1825, when the mayor refused to take part, but a formal reconciliation did not occur until 1955, just 600 years after the events concerned.

One might ask why this event is not more notorious. For comparison, only 38 men were murdered at the notorious Glencoe Massacre (although 40 more [men, women and children] died of exposure subsequently). The massacre of Jews at York, perhaps numerically the largest ever massacre in mainland Britain (although dwarfed by some of the massacres that have happened in Ireland), saw 150 die in 1190. By any measure the Scholastica Day Riot deserves to be better known.

More details at: