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The physical deformities of Anne Boleyn and Richard III: myth and reality But...in thirty round frames that made an arc were the inhabitants of the unknown worlds, of whom only the Physiologus and the vague reports of travelers speak slightly. Many of them were unfamiliar....For example, brutes with six fingers on each hand; sirens...the hairy men of India...Pygmies,...These and other wonders were carved on that doorway.1 Fiction can stimulate historians to take another look at familiar evidence or to seek insights in unusual sources. In his Defense of Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney argued that as poetry was not limited to facts revealed in old records, it had a greater capacity for moral instruction and for delighting its readers than history.2 Relevant to Sidney's claim is the above quotation from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, a best-selling, twentieth-century murder mystery set in a fourteenth-century abbey. Eco's description of the "wonders...carved on that doorway" is directly responsible for this re-examination of the charges that Anne Boleyn and Richard III were disfigured. It is fitting that fiction has led to this latest attempt to refute the allegations of their deformities, which are almost certainly fictional but which have been accepted as historically valid. A problem basic to this investigation is its reliance on the absence of evidence for its arguments. Caution is called for and will be taken, but it must be emphasized that in early modern Europe a deep insensitivity to the suffering of a person born with a physical abnormality, something as minor as an unusual tuft of hair around his navel, caused him to be characterized as a monster.3 Thus, in considering a royal deformity, like an extra fingernail or uneven shoulders, there is strong reason for accepting the lack of reference to it during the lifetime of the individual involved as compelling in itself. Before turning to the accounts of Anne's and Richard's disfigurement, further comments about how their contemporaries perceived and treated monsters will be useful. Monster literature was ubiquitous and popular at all levels of society. It flowed from three sources: 1) the scientific works of Aristotle and other ancients; 2) references to the birth of monsters as portents or divine signs by pagans, like Cicero, and 1 My thanks to Sir Geoffrey Elton, Cambridge University, for his critical review of this paper and suggestions about its structure: I am grateful for his assistance and encouragement. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, tr. William Weaver, New York, 1980, 405. 2 Sidney: A Defence of Poetry, ed. Jan Van Dorsten, New York, 1966, 11-30. 3 John Barker, The True Description of a Monsterous Chylde (London: W. Gryffith, 1564). 136 R.M. Warnicke Christians like St Augustine; 3) the descriptions of races in the East and in Africa by Alexander the Great, Solinus, and Pliny, among others.4 Drawing upon these sources, writers produced a wide range of publications: broadsides, sermons, and treatises. To generate the greatest possible interest the works contained drawings of an assortment of real and imaginary subjects, such as grotesque pigs, fish, and humans, especially babies with birth defects. Siamese twins loomed large in this literature, partly because clergymen were confronted with the serious theological problem of whether to baptize both heads.5 Writers argued that monsters were born when God deliberately interfered with natural forces, for nature left alone could be viewed as mightier than He. In addition,they often claimed that deformities were a sign that the Almighty had visited the sins of parents upon their offspring. Since occasionally people with unimpeachable morality had handicapped children, other causes could be added or substituted, such as portents of a disaster, an unfavourable position of the stars at conception, or a mother's focussing during her pregnancy on something hideous, the characteristics of which developed in her baby.6 Fascinated by grotesque creatures, early modern Christians displayed them in towns and fairs, a custom that has been continued in the exhibition of fat ladies, giants, and thin men at carnivals. Modern medicine, which has revealed many causes of birth defects, makes it necessary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 135-153
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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