What’s the deal with all those medieval midgets? (Google Penance)

Sometimes, I think the good folks at Google must be having a laugh at my expense. How else to explain why this weekend my blog was the top hit for the question “What’s the deal with all those medieval midgets?” even though my blog has never, to my knowledge, mentioned midgets?* Bald, stabby children, yes. Midgets, not so much.

So, what is the deal with all those midgets? As it turns out, WikiAnswers (Q&A the wiki way!) has already answered this one.** I quote:

Midgets, were considered being magical elves, dwarfves, and leprahuans. People would walk up to them and ask them for wishes, gold, or just hire them to be in front of their midievil lawns and scare away people they didn’t want to see. Nah, just kidding, I have no Idea.

Is that all clear, then?

I realize that some of you reading this blog were possibly not aware that there was a “deal” with midgets in the Middle Ages. Certainly, midgets must have made up a greater proportion of the medieval population than the modern, since in the last few decades medical science has been able to identify and treat many of the causes of abnormal shortness.*** But were midgets a medieval “deal”?

Readers of medieval romances, Arthurian romances in particular, might think so. Arthur’s knights often go adventuring with dwarves in tow or encounter them on their quests. Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide mentions in passing Bilis, the king of the Antipodes, who is said to be a dwarf, as tiny as his brother Briens (the Big) is big, and in Chrétien’s Lancelot, Lancelot is forced to shame himself by riding on a cart driven by a rude dwarf. When evil villains want to root out the identity of the incognito hero Gareth in Malory’s Morte, they kidnap his dwarf, naturally, which leads to this touching and heroic exchange (from Caxton’s edition, adapted into a screenplay, should anyone in Hollywood be reading this and need a tentpole for Summer ’09):


Thou traitor, Sir Gringamore, deliver me my dwarf again, or by the faith that I owe to the order of knighthood, I shalt do thee all the harm that I can.


Sir Gareth of Orkney, leave thy boasting words, for thou gettest not thy dwarf again.


Thou coward knight, bring him with thee, and come and do battle with me, and win him and take him.


So will I do, and me list, but for all thy great words, thou gettest him not.

[From a tower nearby, a lady calls down]


Ah! Fair brother, I would he had his dwarf again, for I would he were not wroth, for now he hath told me all my desire I keep no more of the dwarf.


Shall I have my dwarf?


Yea, sir, and all the pleasure that I can make you.

I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be funny in the original, but you never can tell with Malory.

So, what’s the deal with all these romance midgets and/or dwarfs? Fortunately, the definitive work of romance midget scholarship was written fifty years ago, Vernon J. Harward, Jr.’s The Dwarfs of Arthurian Romance and Celtic Tradition. Though it suffers from the “Celtic analogues explain everything” syndrome that so plagues early Arthurian scholarship, the book does debunk fairly well the idea that these romance dwarfs were inspired by experience with actual dwarfs. The sight of a dwarf in a court, even a dwarf acting as a jester, was strange enough that when it is described in early medieval writings, the writer goes out of his way to state how remarkable it was. In general, the dwarfs of Arthurian romance probably started out as a magical race, like those in Welsh and Irish myths: fair haired, helpful little guys who live in a magical kingdom under the ground. As the stories moved out of their original cultural context, the magical origin of the dwarfs was left behind, leaving our knights attended by human midgets and dwarfs.

Aside from Arthur, is there any other medieval midget deal? Possibly, it has something to do with Baby Jesus, as most things medieval ultimately do. One of my undergrads recently noted in a paper on the visual arts in Renaissance Italy: “In the Middle Ages, people did not have geometry to do perspective with, and so when they drew baby Jesus, they made him out of proportion, especially in the leg region.” Here is a fairly typical medieval baby Jesus, or as my students like to term him, “Midget Jesus”:****

As you can see, the infant Jesus is proportioned like an adult: even newborn, he’s already able to sit up by himself, and he’s even begun practicing his “Bless you, my child” for when the Magi arrive later for their scheduled adoration.

My essay-writing student above was trying to explain that linear perspective, that trick that makes a 2-D Renaissance painting look 3-D, was not one that medieval artists knew how to do. They were not, however, incapable of drawing babies–Baby Jesus is just a special case. Like with most medieval religious art, matters of scale and realism take a back seat to the religious content. Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, and a fair number of medieval theologians had problems with the idea of The Word Made Flesh ever being unable to speak. So, as it turns out, Medieval Baby Jesus is quite the conversationalist. Just to be safe, he can walk and talk and pretty much do anything that Jesus Classic can do, and so is usually (but by no means always) drawn accordingly.

One final thought on the medieval midget deal is that the Googler was perhaps asking about pygmies. Like dog-headed men and pretty much every other weird semi-human race, these were thought to live at the edges of the world, or at the least, in a land far, far away. Medieval pygmies were more or less like modern pygmies, with one exception: they absolutely hated cranes and would flip out and kill them pretty much all the time. Read all about the wars between crane and pygmy here.

*My best guess is that I am overly fond of the phrase “What’s more” as a transition, and so questions with what’s in them come here. What’s more, I’m also overly fond of “overly fond,” but so far, Google hasn’t punished me for that.
**For those of you who refuse to follow every little cute link I add to my post, some other questions in the “midget” section of WikiAnswers include “Are midgets real?”; “Can thirty midgets kill a full-grown tiger?”; and various queries about the possibility that midgets have non-midget sized private parts.
***A decade of university life has left me constitutively unable to not add the following disclaimer: I understand there is a very important technical difference between dwarfs and midgets, and it’s offensive not to mind that, and that many people are likewise offended in principle by the casual use of terms like “abnormal” or “condition” when it is used to describe people who are happy and productive members of society. Many apologies for my cretinity.
****The image is taken from a twelfth-century psalter, swiped from a digital database here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • GW

    Great post. Linked

  • Oscar

    Rent “Time Bandits” by Terry Gilliam, midgets and medievally goodness all around.

  • Critter

    Interesting page. I myself am an Achondroplaisa Dwarf height of 4’6″ in rude terms a Midget as commonly known a LP or Little Person. I have worked in the field of “the medieval midget deal.” My brother was always into the medieval everything. I learned allot from him, and for a time became a fantasy geek as well. Guess I was just inspired by all the wonder in fantasy tales and teachings he shared with me. I am age 27 right now. My brother is quite a bit older then me. He is a Professional Jouster. Meaning he as a side Job drives to various places and sets up a performance with others, for crowds of many. Myself I would love to ride along side of him but my height affects me against larger Average size opponents. Hey I’m short but I think I would most likely win by being underestimated. Never know.

    As to being a Jester hey why not. It is an easy performance to do and hey people love it. They laugh, and cheer in surprised amusement every time, and cheer always follow. Wow… what a feeling when you have so many cheers, from so many. You would not know that kind of joy to have all eyes on you in wow of someone they have never seen before but they so wonder about us with not allot of education of the way we are. Hey in a crowd I stand out and if I try it is not hard to be number 1 in a large crowd. It is easy for us. I bet that back in the past when there where other Dwarfs who did fill in the roles of Jesters very easily. Hey there does not need to be a large population of dwarfs to fill in a Jester role to perform for so many. Hey if there were so many of us would that be so funny haha when your neighbor is the same as the one you are laughing at? I think not. There were likely the same number then as now being that the dwarf gene hits 1 out of every 10,000 – 25,000 people. % is the same no matter how many people there are in a population. Why we stand out so much? Take a look we stand out. But Hey…We like the Money we earn to get a little cheer in whatever offered form. In some cases acting as monkeys or fools. Being ashamed to say so myself I have had my times acting in a ridiculous way, but who hasn’t in one form or another? but I like the money from the easy fame as so others in the past have as well enjoyed the easy money as well

    We may also act as fools sometimes likely from drinking all the free booze people try to push on use for free. Just for us to just give them a little attention for a sec or two. After a performance you would laugh when you see us coming over and some would also offer a seat and make you the star of just about any conversation
    As long as you are not shy.

    Bald, Stabby, Children you say we look like. Well I can pick out some of you that are as well. Hey what one of us are you talking about? Or do we all have hairloss and are over weight?

    As to the Fantasy roles of Midgets, and why we act in medieval evil performances. Well it is just and easy hobby for us to fill and as a because some of us just love and connect to fantasy because of our appearance form. The job is easy for us to fill to liven up any crowd past or present.

  • Minimynx

    Anyone that seems to know or think they know of medevil times would/should know that they were known as dwarfs. There term midgets wasn’t created until when p.t.Barnum started his circus and didn’t know what to label them for his “freak”show. He came up with midget since there is a small insect that was called a midge.

  • Keith Jowett

    Landed on this page from a bing/google search. I’m playing Burning Wheel RPG now, just starting, on Roll20 site. Working up my character’s backstory. I swear strongly: I remember reading, somewhere, a description of ‘dwarf zoos.’ I think probably late medieval, as in decadent – as late as Versailles/Louvre? dunno. Just, that, it was a thing to do, among aristocrats, living indoors very Let Them Eat Cake, to have, in your palace, a DWARF ZOO – and so, imagine, like, a zoo, or even a large terrarium, an indoor area, that’s been made dwarf-habitable: little houses to live in, little gardens to tend, fed, etc. Toss them peanuts. Yay! the bear-baiting middle ages …

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