Past Imperfect

Disabled people were prominent at the court of the Spanish Habsburgs. Janet Ravenscroft examines the roles they played and draws comparisons with modern attitudes towards physical imperfection.

Charles II of Spain by Luca Giordano, c. 1692. AKG Images/Museo del PradoThe recent Paralympic Games forced the able-bodied among us to pay serious attention to the disabled minority in our midst, perhaps for the first time. One of the achievements of the games was to bring the athletes’ differences to the fore while, paradoxically, making their disabilities far less remarkable than their extraordinary abilities. Encounters of this kind force us to reconsider how we define and value disability and the ways in which we interact with people who are not ‘like us’.

Historians are returning to ‘the body’ as a topic, questioning how disability was thought about in early modern Europe. For example, exciting work is being done on the nature and role of the court ‘fool’ in Tudor England (see All the King’s Fools, Suzannah Lipscomb, History Today, August 2011) and there has been a flurry of conferences and essays dedicated to the treatment of disability in Renaissance literature and art.

My work focuses on people with intellectual and physical disabilities – especially dwarfism – who lived in 16th- and 17th-century Spain. Although long overlooked by modern historians, the dwarfs played key roles at court as long-term companions and close personal servants to members of the Habsburg family. They had their own servants, were housed and fed by the monarch and regularly received gifts and clothes.

At the time a person born with proportionate or disproportionate (achondroplastic) dwarfism belonged to a category embracing ‘monsters’, ‘marvels’ and ‘prodigies’. Such terms denoted something or someone who was out of the ordinary but was included in God’s great scheme. Monstrosity was a positive phenomenon. Within the setting of the Spanish court the dwarfs were everyday marvels: at once familiar and extraordinary. It was their rare and marvellous bodies that made them worthy of a place at court and of memorialisation on canvas alongside their royal masters and mistresses. Far from being marginalised, the dwarfs were integral to palace life. People with more extreme physical disabilities, such as bearded ladies, might have been brought to court to be studied, but they did not become permanent residents or appear in portraits with royalty.

Despite their position as court insiders there was no escaping the fact of dwarfs’ anomalous bodies, which made them figures of fun; their names habitually appear alongside those of entertainers in the palace records. We know that dwarfs did entertain the royal family at meal times precisely because the laughter they provoked was believed to be good for the digestion. Dwarfs and genuine fools were not condemned as immoral, as their conditions were God-given, whereas entertainers of average height and intelligence were seen as morally dubious because they chose to act the fool rather than make better use of their natural talents. However there was criticism of the court entertainers as a group and in 1700 they were all expelled from court by the new Bourbon king, Philip V. The Spanish Habsburg dynasty had ended with the death of Charles II, the sickly product of generations of intermarriage between cousins, who was unable to produce a longed-for heir.

Until their expulsion, one of the dwarfs’ roles was to enhance the fiction of their masters’ iconic ‘perfection’. It was a function that some of the dwarfs also fulfilled as subsidiary figures in paintings. The idea of portraiture was to render visible theories about the Adamic body of the elite figure, who was well proportioned, gracious, fair-skinned, haughty and dignified. This body was conceptualised as an ideal that few people could ever achieve without the help of artificial aids, such as cosmetics, high shoes and fine clothes. This paradigm of the normal/ideal figure as not too old, too fat or too thin has a great deal in common with today’s digitally enhanced celebrities.

In his pioneering work on stigma, the sociologist Erving Goffman, writing in 1963, argued that: ‘There are … norms, such as those associated with physical comeliness, which take the form of ideals and constitute standards against which almost everyone falls short at some stage in his life.’ Given the high expectation, it was understood by early modern spectators that a portrait could be a recognisable likeness that also concealed the sitter’s physical blemishes and irregularities.

Evidence of a gap between a painted representation and reality was provided by Baron Dietrichstein, the Emperor Maximilian II’s ambassador in Madrid, in his description of Alonso Sánchez Coello’s portraits of Philip II’s heir, Don Carlos, painted c. 1564 and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Dietrichstein’s account made it clear that although the painting flattered the prince he was in fact extremely pale, had one shoulder higher than the other, the right leg shorter than the left and a sunken chest.

The Habsburgs’ own physical and intellectual imperfections raise important questions about who exactly was disabled in this court setting: an elite prince with a malformed chest or a person with proportionate dwarfism whose only ‘deformity’ was to be small? What did it mean to be ‘normal’ at a time when people habitually suffered from the kinds of conditions that medicine has largely eradicated from the modern world? In an early modern context simple binary divisions do not work and the difference between the average, able-bodied person and someone with a disability is better understood as one of degrees not of absolutes.

As the late Roy Porter pointed out: ‘The history of bodies must incorporate the history of their perceptions.’ Hopefully one of the enduring effects of the Paralympics will be to encourage us to set aside what we think we know, to look again at familiar texts and images, and to bring people with disabilities out from the shadows.

Janet Ravenscroft is the author of ‘Invisble friends: questioning the representation of the court dwarf in Habsburg Spain’ in Waltraud Ernst, ed., Histories of the Normal and the Abnormal (Routledge, 2006).

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