Norwich entertainments – Part I: A monstrous hairy child and a boneless girl

Brodie Waddell

On 17 November 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court decreed that

Mr Bartholomew Laskey had leave to make shew of a Monstrous Hayree Chyld for 10 daies from this day.

I came across this when looking for something else, but I couldn’t help but make a note of it. And, as I discovered, there were licences like this recorded throughout this period.

About a year later, on 5 October 1678

Isaac Cookesone produced a Lycecne under the seale of his Majesty’s Office of Revells to make shew of a Girle of 16 yeares of age without Bones, and he hath 14 dayes given him to make shew of her at the Lower half Moone in the Market place, He Keeping good order & Houres

Norwich, it seems, was a city that knew how to have a good time.

This is definitely not my area of expertise and I didn’t try to investigate the context of the orders, so I’d welcome ideas. But a few thoughts immediately come to mind…

These sound like the characters that turn up regularly in published ‘providential’ stories, expertly explored by Alex Walsham, where they are presented as signs from God showing people the error of their ways.  For example, the dangers of pride and vanity were shown in a ballad called Prides Fall; Or, A warning for all English Women By the Example of a strange Monster, born late in Germany, by a Merchants proud Wife at Geneva (1684-6).

Prides Fall (1684-6)

Prides Fall; Or, A warning for all English Women By the Example of a strange Monster, born late in Germany, by a Merchants proud Wife at Geneva (1684-6)

Was there an element of this ‘instruction’ in the case of the hairy child and the boneless girl? The recorded orders certainly don’t overtly indicate that they were intended to ‘reform’ the public. So, were they simply for popular titillation? Or, would audiences have been offered moral lessons as well?

It’s also interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that the licences are granted to named individuals but the child and the girl remain anonymous. These children were, in the eyes of the mayor’s court, apparently non-entities, subsumed within the identity of their ‘masters’. This was a common outlook, and in some cases it resulted in poor children being brutally exploited. This seems especially likely in the case of physically abnormal children.

Yet, we should not leap to judgement.  Perhaps Bartholomew Laskey and Isaac Cookesone were parents or relatives of their young charges. These ‘shews’ may have been part of the family’s ‘economy of make-shifts’, a way to get by under very difficult circumstances.

Sadly, it’s doubtful that any evidence exists to reveal more about these people or answer these questions. Nonetheless, I’m glad to have come across the hairy child and the boneless girl. If nothing else, they are yet another reminder of the extraordinarily diverse world inhabited by our not-so-distant predecessors.

[See also Part II and Part III]

Sources

Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 11, 33

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13 thoughts on “Norwich entertainments – Part I: A monstrous hairy child and a boneless girl

  1. This is good stuff Brodie. I actually marked an MA dissertation last year on early modern siamese twins, and there is some literature on this sort of ‘freak show’. Some of the twins that I read about were actually able to scrape a bit of a living by exhibiting themselves, and I seem to remember that more often than not the providential warning was taken to be a general one rather than an individual judgement on the parents in such cases.

    • Thanks, Laura. I think you’re right about the providential interpretation. From my own reading, it seems most ‘wonders’ and ‘monsters’ were seen as unspecific signs of God’s power and mystery, whereas most ‘judgements’ (e.g. someone being struck down in some horrible or weird way) were seen as supernatural punishments for specific sins. These children probably fell into the former category.
      – Brodie

  2. And as I prepare a session on bodies for a Shakespeare summer school, I find this: Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (NY & London, 1996), with a chapter on the exhibition of human oddities in e. m. England by Paul Semonin.

    • Thanks for this too. I suspect this will be a recurring theme on this blog. I’ll eagerly post something mildly interesting … and then it will be politely pointed out that there is already a huge and sophisticated literature on it. *sigh*
      – Brodie

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