A thousand grimaces

Just as in Renaissance courts it was fashionable to have dwarfs and dwarf-jesters, so it was in the Ottoman court.  This account, by a French botanist who travelled at the turn of the 18th century, paints an accurate picture of the presence of both dwarfs and mutes.  And just as in some Renaissance courts, some form of physical defect was considered desirable, Tournefort mentions the same celebration of otherness in Istanbul.  

The dwarfs are real little monkeys pulling a thousand grimaces between them or together with the mutes to make the Sultan laugh, this Prince often honouring them with a kick.  And when a dwarf is found who was born deaf and is consequently mute, he is regarded like the Phoenix of the Palace, more admired than the most handsome man in the world, particularly if this ape is a eunuch.  Yet these three flaws, which ought to render a man contemptible, instead combine, in the eyes and judgement of the Turks, to form the most perfect of creatures.

 

Les nains sont de vrais singes qui font mille grimaces entre eux, ou avec les muets pour faire rire le sultan, et ce Prince les honore souvent de quelques coups de pied.  Lorsqu’il se trouve un nain qui est né sourd, et par conséquent muet, il est regardé comme le Phoenix du Palais: on l’admire plus qu’on ne ferait le plus bel homme du monde, surtout si ce magot est Eunuque: cependant ces trois défauts qui devraient rendre un homme très méprisable, forment la plus parfaite de toutes les créatures, aux yeux et au jugement des Turcs.

Note the mention of face- or grimace-pulling which seems to have been an occasionally appreciated skill among jesters and, here, court dwarfs.   We have another reference by a European traveller, about 100 years after Tournefort’s trip, which describes buffoons entertaining with grimaces.   I have also come across an entry listed in French household accounts of 1395, for a payment of 10 gold écus made by the Duke of Orleans to a grimace-puller.

10 écus d’or à un nommé maître Pierre, du pays d’Aragon, faiseur de grimaces

Source: Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Voyage du Levant  (1717), quoted in G. Kalff, Opkomst, Bloei en Verdwijning van de Hofnar (Amsterdam: De Poortpers, 1954), p. 31; Catalogue analytique des archives de M. le baron de Joursanvault: contenant une précieuse collection de manuscrits, chartes et documens originaux au nombre de plus de quatre-vingt mille, concernant l’histoire générale de la France – l’histoire particulière des provinces – l’histoire de la noblesse et l’art héraldique…. 2 vols (Paris: J. Techener, 1838), vol. 1, p. 135, no. 804.

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