26 November 2014

Cures and Curses: Dwarfs, Imagined Curses

By Kathryn A. Kopple

A cultural history of dwarfs presents the challenge of a scarcity of information. The bibliography on dwarfs is far from extensive and openly contested.  A paragraph here, a scholarly article there, a handful of books does not a history make.  In place of history, we have a mixture of fact and fiction.  For centuries, dwarfs have been co-opted via the popular imagination for the production of myth.  All myths imply a cultural viewpoint, perceptions that stand in for reality.  The object of myth, if it is prevalent enough, comes to form part of our collective experiences.  Didn’t we grow up with dwarfs? Hey ho, hey ho.  Don’t we have a sense from tales and movies that we would recognize a dwarf if we met one?  Surely, as a society, we are no strangers to dwarfs?  Aren’t all dwarfs more or less alike? A culture in search of an embodiment for its fascinations with the body has repeatedly looked at dwarfs to satisfy its assumptions.
     To locate dwarfs in history, we begin with image itself.  The article “Dwarfs in the Arts: Diego Velázquez” informs us that before written material appeared about dwarfs they could be found in artwork.  Apparently, “(I)mages of dwarfs were plentiful in the ancient world.” The article goes on to list the ancient cultures, east and west, old world and new world, that etched dwarfs into pottery, painted dwarfs on stone and canvas, entombed dwarfs with royalty. Frankly, it’s not much to go on. How do we know that we are looking at dwarfs? The very term “dwarf” as it originates in Old English denotes simply a “very short human being.” How short is short? Again, assumptions come into play—or interfere as the case may be.  We come to these images with definite notions of what “dwarf” signifies—our own cultural sense of smallness.  We draw very quick conclusions.  If a very short person is carved in stone that person must been a dwarf.  In all of this—call it “projection”—we create a semblance of history that may apply to dwarfs but to any ancient Egyptian considered uniquely small.   Point being that semblances may be deceiving. 
     During the Renaissance, dwarfs appear to take on a greater corporeal presence in European society.  We hear more about the “court dwarf,” those persons who were valued by royalty precisely because of their diminutive stature.  Living at court, in palatial splendor, hardly secured the dwarfs’ position in society.  They were victims in the ignominious history of human trafficking: nobility purchased dwarfs to keep or trade, prize or disdain, tolerate or eliminate.  However much dwarfs may have been coveted they were servants, and certainly no better off than slaves.   Some dwarfs, and they were the exception, became companions or secretaries. The majority spent their time at court as buffoons. 
     The close association between the various traditions of the carnival and dwarfs brought them into disfavor with religious authority and made them targets of superstitions of all kinds.  During the reign of Isabel I of Castile, a friar lamented the money spent on costumes for dwarfs; the clownish attire only made them look crazier—something the friar regarded as a waste with respect to persons who were already “locos” or lunatics.
     Disparaged though dwarfs may have been there is a lacuna of information with respect to these madcaps.  The household records of Isabella I mention a dwarf named Velasquillo, who served at the behest of Ferdando the Catholic.  We know nothing of where he came from; what his full name was; or how long he remained at court.  In fiction, he is the protagonist of my novel Little Velásquez which is set in 15th century Spain, during the thirteen years leading up to the conquest of Granada.
     In writing Little Velásquez, I made use of the chronicles and historical accounts pertaining to the era.  The chronicles are often confused with history when, in truth, they are hagiography.  History attempts to provide us with a verifiable record of the past; hagiography is an idealized version of the past.  Confusing the two leads to regrettable misconceptions—as to treat hagiography as history is to perpetuate myth.  The very word “chronicle” should inspire a healthy skepticism.   Little enough information exists about dwarfs without further muddling the facts.  I could point to the following: “… Frances de Zúñiga , one of the most famous Spanish dwarfs…  commonly referred to by the diminutive Francesillo.”  Except that we will never know whether Zúñiga or anyone else referred to him as Francesillo.  A diminutive does not a dwarf make.  Sources indicate that Adolfo de Castro bestowed the nickname Francesillo on Zúñiga, the author of a burlesque chronicle of Charles V, in a prologue to an 1855 edition. By then,  the jester had been dead for three centuries.
     Why should an oversight such as the one above matter?  Because the historian—despite calling  Zúñiga brilliant—asserts that he could be wicked and cruel.  He made verbal “assaults” on other people’s appearances that may have stemmed from his own “sensitivity about his body.” Given the predominance of physical humor of the most scatological kind prevalent during the 16th century,  Zúñiga can hardly be treated as an exception, much less an exceptionally disturbed dwarf.
      A far more hair-raising story of a dwarf can be found in a critical history of Spanish literature.   It falls into the category of tales about devious dwarfs.  A dwarf arrives on mule at the palace of a king. His appearance among the fair nobility provokes disgust.  From his head to his toes, he is a grotesque figure.  Based on his appearance alone, the dwarf should be cast out. The benevolent king instead makes the dwarf his guest.  The dwarf feigns gratitude when, all the while, he is plotting mischief.  He sets his sights on the comely queen, entering her bedchamber at night. The queen fends him off and sends him packing minus a tooth. The king summons the dwarf, whereupon he learns the queen is the reason for his injuries.  This arouses the king’s suspicions since he also learns that the struggle took place in the queen’s chamber.  A trap is laid for the queen.  The next day, while the king is at Mass, the dwarf steals into the queen’s room again.  They are discovered by the king.  For the sin of adultery, the king decides that the queen must be burned at the stake.  She is stripped to her camisole in preparation for her ordeal.  The king decides that she is too pure and beautiful to have had carnal relations with a dwarf.  She is spared. The dwarf is not so fortunate.  He is burned to death—destined for an eternity in hell. 
     The stigma cast upon dwarfs has a long tradition, one in which the Church has played no small part.  Dwarfs subvert the natural order of things, and not only in appearance but by their temperament and behavior.   As with itinerant actors, those who made a name performing in public, dwarfs make fools of themselves and others. They live by their wits. They embody irreverence, bawdiness, lewdness, debauchery, so on and so forth.  Small in stature dwarfs are ever associated with excess. Hardly surprising, then, to read in a history of the “juglares” or minstrels  a tale in which a “boy” in the service of the King of Galicia was castigated by none other than the Almighty for making a joke about a saint.  From the famous portraits by Diego de Velázquez to the “Song of the Dwarf” by Rainer Marie Rilke, dwarfs embody the fallen condition of humankind. Velázquez’s dwarfs are among God’s unfortunates; they are to be pitied lest God find us unworthy of his mercy.  The anguish expressed in Rilke’s poem is an elegant expression of acute moral self-abasement.  
      Or we could do just as well to consider the words of a man and poet—one of the great geniuses of his times—who is often and misleadingly called a dwarf:  “Honor and shame from no condition rise.  Act well your part: there all the honor lies.”  Alexander Pope

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.