Of Monkey Girls and a Hog-Faced Gentlewoman: Marvel in Fairy Tales, Fairgrounds, and Cabinets of Curiosities

By Hoffmann, Kathryn A. | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Of Monkey Girls and a Hog-Faced Gentlewoman: Marvel in Fairy Tales, Fairgrounds, and Cabinets of Curiosities


Hoffmann, Kathryn A., Marvels & Tales


There is a marvel that lives in the spaces of connection among fairy tales, fairgrounds, cabinets of curiosities, and medical literature. It crosses limits and melds bodies, makes the boundaries among disciplines unstable, and draws bodies, objects, and tales about them into a web of connections. It is not merely the fantasy of a fairy in her dragon-drawn carriage pointing her wand at a hapless prince about to be turned into a bird or a lucky princess about to be sent to the ball. It is marvel that gives a fairy-tale princess-monkey the same talents displayed by real hairy girls who traveled about early modern European fairgrounds and courts. It reveals itself in the strange mixture of literary, museological, medical, and zoological concerns about humans and beasts that shaped early modern conceptions of monstrosity. It is marvel that displaces itself and multiplies its objects, putting one pair of real, tiny nut boots into a seventeenth-century English collection and another onto a set of French fairy feet. It slides a tale of bewitchment and salvation by marriage out of literature and into a gazetteers tale of a supposedly real hog-faced gentlewoman seeking a husband to cure her state.

The marvel that built hundreds of fairy tales in early modern Europe also fed court tastes in collection and display, made fairground display of people with corporeal anomalies profitable, put mermaids into medical treatises, and posed stuffed basilisks and dragons on the shelves of early museums. The eponymous heroine of d'Aulnoy's "Babiole," the real hypertrichotic girls Tognina Gonzales and Barbara Urslerin, and the probably fictional hog-faced Tannakin Skinker are part of a vast, early modern European world of anomalous and marvelous human bodies. It is a world of real dwarfs and giants, conjoined twins, horned ladies and gentlemen, people without arms or legs or with too many, hermaphrodites, and cat eaters. That world of human marvels fits within a broader world of natural history, medical, and zoological marvel. That world filled hundreds of cabinets of curiosities, wunderkammern, and kunstkammern in early modern Europe with hordes of real strange, rare, unique, or poorly known animals and objects: crocodiles, exotic fish, birds and mammals, stones, minerals, plants, as well as more than a few stuffed basilisks and dragons. Histories of the intersecting realms of marvel have been given interdisciplinary focus in a range of recent studies. Daston and Park's Wonders and the Order of Nature has opened new perspectives on marvel and curiosity in the realms of natural history, art, and collecting from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. Bondesons The Two-headed Boy, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, and The Feejee Mermaid offer a fascinatingly mixed world of medical, natural history, and fairground marvel. Studies in early collecting have added new facets to a growing cross-disciplinary perspective on marvelous objects. The essential works in early collecting history, including The Origins of Museums by Impey and MacGregor, Pomian's Collectors and Curiosities, and Schnapper's Le géant, la licorne et la tulipe, have been followed by new studies on the mix of forces that structured early museums, scientific culture, and natural philosophy, including Findlen's Possessing Nature, Freedberg's The Eye of the Lynx, Stafford's Body Criticism, and Shapin's A Social History of Truth1 Merchants and Marvels, edited by Smith and Findlen, presents new material in the history of the trade, brokerage, and sale of marvels; research on early modern fairgrounds by Altick, Semonin, and others has opened new questions about the complex and still poorly known networks of sale, popular consumption, and scholarly exchange of marvelous bodies.

Fairy tales about hybrid human/animal mixes draw surely from ancient myths. They form new ties and new meanings within an early modern fascination with hybrid Otherness that produced goose and fish trees, vegetable and Tartar lambs; that sold bison horns as unicorn horns and monkey torsos wedded to fish tails as mermen. …

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