Friday, 27 November 2020

Bébé - in images

Paintings and Drawings 

Although there are a number of different  depictions of Bébé, the only definite portrait from life is this oil by Jean Girardet, Stanislas's Court painter.  Sadly, the picture was destroyed in the 2003 fire at Lunéville and is now known only from postcards.  There are also several copies, including one at Lunéville by Girardet's pupil Dominique Pergaut, which survived the fire though it sustained some damage.  The Musée Lorrain has a pastel version by Stanislas himself, which shows Bébé in a light blue coat.

The portrait clearly shows Nicolas Ferry's characteristic long nose and small mouth.

Here is a nice copy, with clothes in the original colours, which recently appeared at auction:

Here is another fine oil painting, sold in 2015.  An annotation specifies that it depict Bébé at the age of eleven.  The face looks like it might derive from the Girardet portrait,  but the clothing reveals  the magnificence of some of Bébé's costumes. The artist Trubenbach is not otherwise documented(?)

A portrait in the collections at Versailles, formerly thought to depict Bébé, now identified as Léopold Clément de Lorraine, Hereditary Prince of Lorraine (1707-1723).

There are also few drawings.  Arthur Benoît, who compiled a list of souvenirs of Bébé in 1883, mentions particularly a drawing from life by in the collections of the Musée Lorrain by the chevalier de Bernis (Berny)  (p.225).  Bébé is shown in profile wearing a fur coat.  The artist in question is Pierre-Jean-Paul Berny de Nogent (1722-79) - the portrait is listed among his works on Wikipedia, but I have so far failed to find an image.

 Porcelain figure in Hussar's uniform

The famous lifesize porcelain figure from Lunéville - lost in the fire at the chateau in 2003, but since meticulously recreated.  There are various surviving photos and postcards of the original.

Reconstruction of the lost statue - Faïencerie de Niderviller:

See: Granat & Peyre  p.23-24. Measurements from the model confirm the abnormal  proportions of Bébé's face.

Wooden mannequin from the Musée Lorrain in Nancy

The Musée Lorrain has various clothes and personal items belonging to Bébé - his coat, cap, spats and a miniature cutlery set.  The costume originally belonged to a Mlle Ouvrard, who was a relative of the Ferry family.  

 The wooden model is 19th-century.   However, the plaster head is said to be "rigorously and authentically modelled" on the basis of a wax head formerly conserved with the skeleton of Bébé in the Musée d'Histoire naturelle. (See Wikimedia file)

For more illustrations:  Nancy Buzz: "Nicolas Ferry, ou Bébé, nain de Stanislas" . post of 7.12.2018. (Photos of the mannequin from an exhibition at the Galerie Poirel in 2018.)

Wax mannequins

Several life-size wax effigies of Bébé exist, as well as sets of clothes that seem likely to have been made for the models.  In all probability they are the work of the Guillot Brothers, whose workshop in Nancy was famous for its wax figures and tableaux. The models have some claim to be portraits since François Guillot is known to have made moulds from life to create his wax heads. (The bodies were usually made of material and stuffed.)


a. From the Musée Unterlinden 

Granat & Peyre (2008) p.12 (fig. 4E).  This figure in the museum at Lunéville is a loan from the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar.  It  has a broken arm.

Statue de Bébé. © musée Unterlinden, Colmar / photo. Musée du château de Lunéville

The mannequin is "not made of wax" -  but possibly it is not the original, since Arthur Benoît, mentioned only articles of clothing from the Musée Unterlinden (p.119). These were among several items relating to Bébé donated by doctor Morel, the mayor of Colmar (presumably the same Morel who tried to tan human skin in 1794!), though it was not known where they originated.  Benoît precisely describes the outfit worn by the model, which comprises:
  • A felt hat with turned back rim, held in place by a buttoned ribbon.
  • A blue silk suit with white lapels, decorated with gold braid. This included a white embroidered waistcoat which was sewed onto the coat.
  • Matching knee-breeches in blue silk, also with braid trim.
  • A miniature sword, of 40 cm with scabbard (now lost?)

b. At Drottningholm Castle

A second example is documented by Jan Bondeson in his 2004 book The Pig-faced lady of Manchester Square and other medical marvels (p.157 and B & W plate 20) . This mannequin was given by Stanislas to Queen Lovisa Ulrika of Sweden for her private museum in Drottningholm Castle just outside Sweden, and remained in situ after the museum was dissolved in 1803. The figure is just under 3 feet tall and is dressed in a suit of pale blue silk with white stockings and a cravat.  The illustration in Bondeson's book shows an outfit  identical to the one at Unterlinden;  this model is even wearing its tricorne hat secured by a ribbon.

c. From the musée Orfila, Paris

A third mannequin can be found in the collections of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris, (Musée d'Anatomie Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière) which in 2011 were transferred to the University of Montpellier.,_

This example is identified in several sources as by François Guillot.  In an article of 1889,  a doctor  Liégey recalls having seen it in the musée Orfila as early as 1832.  He transcribes an old note which reveals that the model once had abundant hair, curled and worn in a pigtail. It was dressed as we still see today, "à la mode Louis XV" with the familiar long blue silk coat, light-coloured waistcoat and white cravat. A felt hat is under the arm.  The scarlet breeches are probably an original variant since Benoît mentions another dilapidated pair which once existed at Lunéville. The writer comments: 

He is standing, upright and clearly well-proportioned.  His skull is not that of an idiot or a cretin, but seems of sufficient size, well-developed and indicative of intelligence. His eyes are wide and sparking, with  well-defined lashes and brows. His nose is well made and somewhat aquiline; what can be seen of his ears is equally normal; his mouth is small and the chin rounded.  In summary, he has an attractive little head.  The hair, light blond with yellow tinges, is abundant, curled at the sides, ending in a fairly long ponytail.  His little hands are plump, his right arm hanging down and the left bent at a right angle. 

 It is not know for certain whether this is the same model which Saveur Morand was recorded as presenting  his lecture to the Academy of Science in 1764, but this seems likely. Moreau specified that his effigy was made for Bébé's surgeon, a certain doctor Jeanet, and represented him at the age of eighteen. It was made using Bébé's real hair and wore clothing which belonged to him shortly before his death.  (Sadly most of the hair from the mannequin at Montpellier is now missing.)

There is some muddle about ages and heights, since Liégey's note claimed that Nicolas only reached the height of 70 centimetres, whereas Granat & Peyre calculate he would have measured 83 cm at the age of eighteen. Perhaps mercifully, they haven't been able to measure the waxwork itself, which - to judge by the wrinkled stockings - has in any case shrunk over the years.

Dr Liégey,"Le Bébé de Stanislas Leckzinski",  Annales de la Société d'émulation du département des Vosges 1889, p.135-150.

Waxwork from the Herzog Anton-Ulrich Museum,  Braunschweig (Brunswick). 

This effigy is known to have been in the  private museum of Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick before 1803. The maker is not known (?) but the model seems unlikely to have been taken from life.  The figure is 77.5 cm tall,  has a coloured wax head and horsehair wig - the museum notice specifies that the leather glove  in its hand belonged to Bébé himself.

There is another wax figure documented  at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Kassel.  Priscilla Grace saw it in storage there in 1980 and reported that it was "identical with the one in Brunswick".(Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol.15, note 19)

Notice on


Arthur Benoît, "Bébé le Nain du roi Stanislas 1741-1764" Bull. Soc. philomatique vosgienne, 1883/4. p. 111-126. 

Jan Bondeson, The Pig-faced lady of Manchester Square and other medical marvels (2004), Chapter 7 "The King of Poland's court dwarf and the Sicilian fairy". p.174-6.

Jean Granat & Evelyne Peyre, "Nicolas Ferry dit "Bébé",(1741-1764) nain à la cour de Stanislas Leszczynki, duc de Lorraine, Lunéville. 2008. 

Priscilla Grace, "A Wax miniature of Joseph Boruwlaski". Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol.15 (1980)

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Nicolas Ferry, the dwarf Bébé

Among the more disturbing items in the collection of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris is this sad little skeleton, the mortal remains of  "Bébé", the famous dwarf of Stanislas, duke of Lorraine.  Dwarfs had once been a familiar fixture of court life throughout Europe, but by the early 18th-century they had all but disappeared from Western Europe; in France the official position of "court dwarf" was suppressed  in 1642 after the death of Anne of Austria's dwarf Balthazar Pinson.   Bébé,  at Lunéville, the glitttering intellectual hub created by Stanislas, thus excited unprecedent interest.  His life illustrates the transition from a Renaissance world of courtiers and curiosities into the bright new era of Enlightenment science.

At the end of Bébé's short life, King Stanislas's chief surgeon had his skeleton preserved.  First deposited in the public library in Nancy, it was then entrusted to Buffon to be show in the Cabinet de l'histoire naturelle  at the Jardin du Roi in 1767. It thus became one of the oldest specimens of the National Museum of Natural History created in 1793. The skeleton remained on show throughout the museum's various incarnations until  2006 when it was relegated to the reserve collection.

After long neglect in recent years scholarly interest in Bébé  has been revived thanks to the extensive researches of the anthropologists Évelyne Peyre and Jean Granat. Their work has involved not only new medical insights but also extensive consideration of documentary sources.  Thanks to this research we now have a new, more balanced insight into this little individual, whose own voice is lost to history.

Early life

Nicolas Ferry, "Bébé", was born 11th November 1741 in Champenay, one of several scattered hamlets which make up the commune of Plaisnes (Plaine), then within the Principality of  Salm, in the Vosges  mountains. His parents, Jean Ferry and Anne Baron,  were of modest means;  his father is given as a farmer or cartwright. He was the eldest of three children,  his siblings  apparently of ordinary stature.  According to an uncle, Nicolas measured eight or nine inches at birth (20-22cm) and weighed less than a pound (367 grams); the comte de Tressan later gave his birth weight as a pound and quarter (612 grams) [p.9]. In either case, he was unbelievably tiny,  his survival testament to his mother's determination and devoted care; unable to suckle, he had to be fed drops of goat's milk from a tiny bottle.

According to most accounts Nicolas's father died when he was three. Until he came to Lunéville had experienced only "a rustic upbringing and coarse nourishment". He spoke the local patois though he later successfully mastered the French of the Court.  He was reported to have talked at eighteen months and walked at two years, a respectable record for so physically disadvantaged an infant. 

From his first years Nicolas was the object of considerable curiosity and soon came to the attention of the Court at Lunéville. On 25 juillet 1746, when he was  five years old, he was examined by the Queen's doctor, Kasten Rönnow, Those present included the surgeon Claude Joseph Geoffroy, a who subsequently presented a paper to the Academy of Science in Paris. Nicolas was carefully measured at  22 inches (59.3 cm) in height, weighed 9 pounds 7 ounces (4.6 kg) with correct anatomical proportions . Had scars from smallpox, which he contracted at the age of six months.  Described as having an aquiline nose, silver blond hair and dark blue eyes. Geoffrey thought he was slow, and had a poor memory but was taken with his personality: he was active and lively, enjoyed attention,  laughed charmingly and readily showed affection towards his mother.

Life at Court 

Shortly after this examination, Nicolas was installed permanently at Lunéville. For the family the arrangement meant access to to a world of dazzling riches - Voltaire's biographer Gustave  Desnoiresterres says that his mother received a generous pension.  (Hénault remarked drily that she was foolish  to have masses said for her son to grow.)     Nicolas's brother Louis was reported to have become the wealthiest man in village simply through a gift of the child's savings.

From this time onwards, Nicolas seldom left Stanislas's company and followed him on all his travels. His days were passed in lessons, in playing with the pages and children of the Court, and attending the duke in his cabinet.

In the tradition of court dwarf he was looked upon as a plaything and jester, a role which he fulfilled to perfection.  The duke showed him genuine affection and showered him with gifts. Stanislas, or his wife the duchess, nicknamed him "Bébé", a term which entered the French language for the first time. (It's true - try it on Google Ngram!)  He was dressed up like a prince;  Inside one of the rooms of the château was erected a miniature wooden house.  A little voiture de gala pulled by two white goats was provided in which he could promenade around the park. There was also later, according to some accounts,  an entire "house on wheels" featuring terraces filled with exotic birds.  The goat cart at least was real - it survived to be spotted in service on a farm a century later. The musée Lorrain in Nancy still preserves several souvenirs, including a miniature cutlery set:

Nicolas soon became very famous and was seen by various Enlightenment figures. Most responded to him with pleasure and wry amusement.  According to the accounts, he was lively, gentle, gracious and full of ingratiating tricks.  Voltaire encountered him in 1748 at the age of seven, when he can be readily imagined slipping under chairs and passed billets doux to Madame du Châtelet.   Bébé seldom failed to play the naughty rascal as required;  kicking the shins of waiters or darting under the skirts of the court ladies. In later years he would feature in theatricals and regularly performed simple dance routines. He appeared to particular effect in 1754 when a troupe of Italian comedians visited Lunéville.  He was said to have enjoyed  watching the royal guards drill, and was furnished with a miniature Polish hussar's uniform in which he carried out weekly manoeuvres before an appreciative audience - late in 1761 he enjoyed a final triumph when "Captaine Bébé" led the Grenadiers and citizen's cavalry in a parade to amuse the visiting French princesses, Adelaide and Victoire . At one of Stanislas's many extravagant banquets he was remembered bursting  forth from an elaborate pastry  shaped like a fortress, firing pistols to the alarm of the guests. 

19th-c lithograph after A. Géniole (Wellcome Collection)

In later years there were inevitably rumours of romantic attachments.  Antoine-Sébastien  Guerrier  in his Annales de Lunéville (1817), recounted that Nicolas had wanted to marry two different women but been thwarted on both occasions.  In 1761 Stanislas was said to have arranged a match with a female dwarf called Thérèse Souvray who, many years later,  performed an theatrical act in which she called herself  "la fiancée de Bébé".  Edouard Garnier in a sympathetic study, Les nains et les géants (1874), doubted the reality of this liaison. (see Granat  & Peyre, p. 12).  Dwarf wedding were a traditional novelty of Court life; here is Peter the Great attending one in 1712:

Bébé was by no means always co-operative, especially as he grew older;  he would sulk, scatter tric- trac counters, break valuable vases, but Stanislas unfailingly greeted his tantrums with good-humoured indulgence.  To an extent, petulant behaviour was part of his expected role.  Sometimes things got out of hand - on one occasion, for instance, he tried to throw the pet dog of the princesse de Talmont,  a rival for her affections, out of a window.

Nicolas de Mirbeck (?) Stanislas with Bébé, Musée Lorrain, Nancy

Last illness and death 

 At first Bébé's appearance was universally admired, but in his late teens he began to age prematurely.  His back stooped and one of his shoulders became hunched; his legs weakened; he lost his teeth and his aquiline nose became beaklike. (The Comte de Tressan, a keen observer, believed that his decline coincided with the onset of puberty and confidently predicted his death before the age of thirty.)  His ill health was accompanied by loss of gaiety and worsening behaviour.  He was now readily compared to the vicious "Nain jaune" of the fairy tale.  (A new board game, the jeu de Nain Bébé, later jeu de Nain jaune, became popular in Lorraine about this time)  A particular crisis came in  1759 when the Countess Humiecka , a cousin of the duc of Lorraine, brought to Lunéville the Polish dwarf Józef Boruwłaski,"Joujou".  This new rival was  cultivated and intelligent, and more pertinently, stood several inches shorter than Nicolas. Consumed by inarticulate jealously, Bébé attempted to push Boruwłaski into the fire. (Boruwlaski recounted  the incident in his Memoirs - see below.)

The following year, at age twenty-one, Nicolas fell into a lethargy and became bedridden and incontinent.  He rallied only to enjoy the warming sunshine in the garden.  In May 1764 he caught a cold, followed by bouts of fever and debilitating weakness. He could neither eat nor rise from his bed.  On 5th June he roused himself to confess his sins and receive extreme unction.  He finally died in his mother's arms at eight o'clock on the evening of 8th June,  aged only twenty-two years and seven months. The surviving death certificate reminds us that in Lorraine, since he was less than twenty-five years old, Nicolas was still regarded as a minor.

Kasten Rönnow, under instruction from Stanislas, had an autopsy performed and the remains preserved. In  a letter to the Journal Encyclopédique the surgeon Nicolas Saucerotte confirms that he and one of his colleagues were invited to make a skeleton of the body. This would have been an unbelievably gruesome process, involving boiling up the corpse to remove the flesh. A mausoleum for the viscera was erected in the Church of the Couvent des Minimes in Lunéville, with a sentimental Latin epitaph composed by the comte de Tressan. The church is long gone, the monument itself  destroyed in the 2003 fire at  Lunéville.

Buffon, in his Histoire naturelle, includes a description of the skeleton and 48 measurements of the bones, with a short biographical note based on Tressen's observations. He provides details of the post-mortem which confirmed that Bébé had died from lung disease. The length of the skeleton was given as thirty-three inches, the same height as the dwarf in life. It showed a curvature of the spine, which had deformed the ribs and chest cavity.  Nicolas probably had no teeth at the time of death - the edges of the tooth sockets were partially damaged with only one visible hole.

The modern analysis

Renewed interest in Bébé came about in 2005 in an unlikely context: the debate on the status of  Homo floresiensis, a diminutive  hominid who lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia an estimated  50,000 years ago.  It was speculated that the Musée de l'homme's "harmonious dwarf" might offer a potentially illuminating comparison.

The examination was confined to non-invasive techniques - detailed measurement and radiography. Évelyne Peyre and Jean Granat  first conducted a thoroughgoing  biometric study of Nicolas Ferry's  skeleton. They established that his adult height was 94.5 cm, a little over three feet, and verified  the contemporary observation that his body and limbs were in ordinary proportion but reduced in size. However, his was not, as previously thought,  a classic case of "pituitary dwarfism" caused by hormone deficiency.  The fact that Nicolas's growth was retarded in the womb, and that he suffered premature aging, pointed to a rare genetic abnormality.  This was confirmed by certain craniofacial features - his long, beaklike nose, coupled with an unusually small jaw and malformed teeth.  Usually the middle and lower sections of the face are approximately the same height;  in Bébé the middle portion measured 63mm and the lower portion, even when allowance was made for his missing teeth. only 45 mm.  This disproportion is not found in depictions  of other  harmonious dwarfs such as Joseph Boruwlaski. Only DNA analysis, however, can provide an exact diagnosis.  

The experts also addressed the issue of Nicolas's mental capacities. Examination of Bébé's skull established that, despite its small size,  his brain was not abnormally constricted.  Peyre and Granat  were thus able to conclude - for both Bébé and the Homo florensiensis specimen LB1 -  that the volume of the brain did  not have any influence on cognitive capabilities.  

Bebe's personality and intelligence

Louis Elizabeth de la Vergie, Comte de Tressan (1705-1783),
To support their biometric data,  Peyre and Granat carefully reviewed the documentary evidence concerning Bébé's intelligence.  This did not prove easy, as the sources are biased by reliance on the hostile and in places inaccurate, testimony of  the Comte de Tressan. Tressan was Louis XV's former aide-de-camp, Governor of Toul and Grand Marshal to the Court at Lunéville -  an important nobleman and also an influential figure in the Enlightenment establishment. 

 When Tressan arrived in Luneville in 1750, Nicolas  was already nine years old and it was not until a decade later, following the visit of Józef Boruwłaski that the dwarf came much to his attention.  In 1760 he presented a paper to the Academy of Sciences, which was reedited for  the article "Nain" in the  Encyclopédie in 1765.  . Since he had accurately predicted Bébé's premature death, his credit remained high and the surgeon Sauveur‑François Morand, in what was one of the first scientific considerations of the nature of dwarfism, repeated his views to Academy once again in 1764.  No doubt it was also Tressan was behind the transfer of Bébé's skeleton to Paris

Tressan organised his presentation around the comparison of Bébé and Józef Boruwłaski, an individual of exceptional abilities by any standards.   He reported (probably inaccurately) that Bébé had been born at seven months gestation, that his skull had properly formed and that he possessed only "an intelligence that did not surpass the boundaries of instinct". Distinguished pedagogues, and even the princesse de Talmont herself, had undertaken his education but it had proved impossible to teach him his letters or to make him grasp the rudiments of religion. He was incapable of performing even the simplest dance routines without constant prompting.

In a comment calculated to strike a chord with his Enlightened readers, he notes that  Descartes's theory of an "animal soul" was better proven by Bébé "than by a monkey or poodle" (In a letter, supposedly from Madame de Pompadour, Tressan's correspondent declares how she would love to meet this being who could amuse so well, but did not know the existence of God.).  Tressan did not hide his distaste:  "I have never looked upon Bébé without repugnance and with that  secret horror  that the degradation of our nature almost always inspires."

Those fonder of the dwarf, tried to revise the judgment.  The princesse de Talmont, publishing  a pamphlet in his defence, was readily accused of sentimentality, but she convincingly refutes the idea that Nicolas lacked normal self-awareness;  she thought him sincerely attached to his prince, fond of his family and generous in giving alms.  More tellingly,   "he understood the full worth of his small stature".  The surgeon Nicolas Saucerotte goes further: far from being morally cowed, he "had the highest opinion of his little person".

In fact, though his scholastic accomplishments were limited, it is clear that Nicolas could talk, interact normally and perform the theatrical and ceremonial tasks assigned to him with a certain panache.  There is also plenty of corroboration that enjoyed ordinary close relations with his family.  Geoffrey, in his 1746 memoir, was often quoted to claim he had no memory, and did not recognise his own mother when he first came to Lunéville.  But he goes on to say he that he later embraced her with great affection.  Guerrier, a local writer, writing in 1818, reported that he had been sad and homesick when he first arrived and had wanted his mother to stay with him permanently.  Certainly he hoarded his savings for the family, unwittingly making them the wealthiest people in the village. When he fell ill Stanislas sent immediately for his mother and her brother;  With his mother's encouragement, he confounded Tressan's expectations by receiving the Last Rites of the Church..  

Peyre and Granat conclude that there is no evidence, either physical or documentary, that Bébé was clinically mentally handicapped.  Well-informed commentators like Guerrier did not say so;   Edouard Garnier noted perceptively that he would have had little opportunity for intellectual development:

We must protest against the common assertion that all dwarfs lack intelligence. It is true that Bébé and others of his kind showed a below-average intelligence throughout their short lives; but this was above all the result of their premature aging; these poor little beings were weighed down by their feeble constitutions; the difficulties of their upbringing did not allow much opportunity to cultivate their minds.  As with most children they showed above all an instinct for imitation... They remained children for their whole lives since their intellectual faculties dimmed as soon as their vital forces began to fail.
Edouard Garnier,  Les nains et les géants (1874), p.69-70.

What should happen to Bébé's skeleton?

 Alain Froment, director of the Musée de l'homme, is shown introducing the skeleton in this 2014 video: 
Les incroyable trésors de l'histoire: le squelette du nain Bébé - video  (Le Point, 2014)  

The display of human remains, such as those of Bébé, acceptable though it might have been in the past, now often conflicts with expectations concerning the appropriate  treatment of race or disability. Thus Hilary Mantel has recently championed the burial of  Charles Byrne, the "Irish giant", whose skeleton was displayed in the Hunterian collection in London against his express wishes.  In France the Musée de l'Homme faces a dilemma on a serious scale, since its new high-tech storage facility contains the remains of no less than 20,000 individuals from all periods of history.  In 2002, after a sustained campaign, the remains of Sara Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus" were repatriated to South Africa and earlier this year the heads of killed and executed leaders of the 19th-century Algerian insurrection were successfully reclaimed for burial.  Scientific director Alain Froment and chief conservationist Philippe Mennecier have signalled their preparedness to consider requests on a case by case basis, though they emphasise that the wishes of the original donors should be recognised as well.  The fact that Nicolas Ferry's skeleton has not been placed back on display suggests a certain discomfort.  The scientists have done their examination;  perhaps it is now time to give Nicolas a decent burial?


Jean Granat & Evelyne Peyre, Nicolas Ferry dit "Bébé",(1741-1764) nain à la cour de Stanislas Leszczynki, duc de Lorraine, Lunéville. 2008. 

[In 2018 Jean Granat & Evelyne Peyre published a book based on their research:
_____,  "Bébé", un nain à la cour de Lunéville: (1741-1764), 2018

Jan Bondeson, The Pig-faced lady of Manchester Square and other medical marvels (2004), Chapter 7 "The King of Poland's court dwarf and the Sicilian fairy". p.157-176.

Malgorzata Dubas "The first Academic discourse about dwarfism in the eighteenth century: on the example of the dwarf of Lunéville" .  Studia Humanistyczne AGH, 18(2), 2019.

For a different perspective:
Betty M. Adelson, The lives of dwarfs: the journey from public curiosity towards social liberation (2005) Lending copy available on Internet Archive
In this pioneering study the American psychologist Betty Andelson makes some telling observations on the predicament of the Court dwarf. In royal and aristocratic circles certain categories of individual - women, black slaves, fools, dwarfs, castrati - functioned, in much the same way as exotic pet animals, to aggrandise their masters. They were one aspect of conspicuous consumption  - the rich man might boast a harem, a plantation overflowing with slaves,or a dwarf servant behind every chair.  Despite physical proximity social distance allowed the aristocracy to approach dwarfs with a mixture of charity and amusement. This was often expressed by "pet names" such as Bébé, Joujou, or the ironically grandiose "Alexander the Great". Dwarfs could be indulged, abused or ignored at their patron's pleasure. The psychological pain of deformity was never addressed.


 Report of Geoffrey to the Academy in 1746
M. Geoffroi gave a description to the Academy of a little dwarf who was presented to His Majesty the king of Poland, duke of Lorraine; this infant, named Nicolas Ferry, was born the 13th November 1741; his mother, who was thirty-five years of age, had three children, of whom he was the eldest.... At birth, he was eight or nine pouces in length and weighed twelve ounces or three quarterons.  On 25 July [1746] M. Kast, Chief Physician to the Duchess, measured and weighed him carefully;  he was then twenty-two inches long and weighed, undressed, nine pounds seven ounces. He was fully formed, in miniature, like a man of twenty, which led M. Kast to conjecture that he would not grow much more;  all the parts of his body were well-proportioned, he had an attractive face, with a fine aquiline nose, dark brown eyes and silver blond hair;  on his forehead were one large and one small white scar from smallpox, which he had suffered at the age of three months; there were others, smaller, all over his body.  His stomach was a little fat when he was brought to Court, no doubt because of his coarse diet, but since he has been fed more choice succulent foods, he has slimmed down.  Clothes and furniture suitable to his size have been provided for him.  He is extraordinarily vivacious and never stays still. He fears nothing and will not be distracted from the object of his attention, however frivolous it might be.  His laugh is pleasing, though he does not laugh often.  He shows great affection for the women who take care of him.  He has some memory, though less than that of an average child his age.  A fortnight after his arrival at Court, his mother came to see him and he seemed not to recognise her;  however, when she left, he embraced her a great deal.  His voice is that of a child of one, proportionate to his size. He is a little bow-legged, particularly on the right, which diminishes his height by half-an-inch, and is probably the result of the poor care he received after birth.
quoted in Edouard Garnier,  Les nains et les géants (1874), p.153-4

Letter of the président Hénault, 12th July 1746.
You have doubtless heard talk of a marvel at this Court;  it is a child of nineteen inches, well-proportioned, with a pretty face, aged five years,  who can slip beneath a chair as easily as  Mme de Clermont passes under the Porte Saint-Denis.  He is naughty and wants to break everything.  It seems his spirit is impatient of its narrow confines; perhaps it is that of Goliath in penitence.  To give you an idea of his size, they put him in a tric-trac box, sitting with his legs outstretched, and he still has enough space to use it to play tric-trac with the ladies.  What do you think of his stupid mother, who has masses said in the hope that he will grow?  The King of Poland has taken charge of him, and given him all sorts of outfits, but the one I liked best was a hussar's uniform.
quoted G.Desnoiresterres, Voltaire à la cour (1869), p.164-5.

The views of the Princess de Talmont: 
 In her unsigned letter...the princess de Talmont describes the reaction at court on the arrival of Bébé: "I rejoiced in the surprise and pleasure which such a phenomenon inspired in everyone. I was convinced that Nature will sometimes make an exception to the inviolable rules of creation to astonish us with a prodigy."

....The princess took charge of the education of Bébé. The rest was done by teachers of reading and writing, music dance and deportment, acting in virgin territory.  Bébé soon disappointed the hopes of his protector and the effort of his teachers.  He learned to speak properly but never to read. "All the same" the comte de Tressan indicated in his letter... he seemed to like music and could beat out a tempo.......(p.101)

According to the princess de Talmont he had at this time [at the age of fifteen] slim legs, supple joints and noble features framed by pretty blond hair; his fresh pink complexion preserved the first sparkle of  youth.  He was in the words of the princess, "un délicieux bébé"...........

The princess may be suspected of partiality when she boasts of her protegé's intellectual qualities.  She says that he spoke the patois of his homeland at six months - clearly an error since Morand specifies in his report that Bébé stuttered his first words only at eighteen months.
The princess adds "As to feelings of the heart, Bébé shows himself to be a rational being.  Flattered by praise, sensitive to reproach, he knew the full worth of his small stature".  Here again it is necessary to interpret and correct. The comte de Tressan translated into blunt scientific language the favourable assessment of the princess; he wrote to Morand, "He is susceptible to certain passions of the sort common to other animals, such as anger and jealousy" .
Lettre d'une personne de Lunéville à un de ses amis de Paris, au sujet du "Mémoire envoyé l'Académie des Sciences" par M. le Comte de Tressan. 15 pages.
quoted in G. Richard, "Bébé (1741-1764) ", Memoires de l'Académie de Stanislas, 1933, p.101-5..

Apocryphal letter of Mme de Pompadour to the Count de Tressan, 6th May 1756
They say that the King of Poland has a dwarf, who is a prodigy and performs a thousand of  mischievous and witty tricks, though they can't make him understand that there is a God. I would very much like to see him. 
Lettres de Madame de Pompadour, ed. Cécile Berly (2014), No. 14.. 

Account by Józef Boruwłaski of his unfortunate encounter with Bébé in  1759:
At our arrival, this monarch received us with that bounty and affability which gained him every heart; and, being of his country, we were, by his order, lodged in his palace.

With this Prince lived the famous Bébé, till then considered as the most extraordinary dwarf that ever was seen ; who was, indeed, of a perfectly proportioned shape, with very pleasing features, but who (I am sorry to say it, for the honour of our species) had, both in his mind and way of thinking, all the defects commonly attributed to us. He was at that time about thirty, his height two feet eight inches; and when measured, it appeared that I was much shorter, being no more than two feet four inches.

At our first interview he shewed much fondness and friendship towards me; but when he perceived that I preferred the company and conversation of sensible people to his own, and above all, when he saw that the King took pleasure in my company, he conceived against me the most violent jealousy and hatred; so that, had it not been for a kind of miracle, I could not have escaped his fury.

One day we were both in the apartment of his Majesty. This Prince, having much caressed me, and asked several questions to which I gave satisfactory answers, seemed pleased with my replies, and testified his pleasure and approbation in the most affectionate manner ; then addressing Bébé,  said to him :---You see,' Bébé, what a difference there is between JOUJOU and you! He is amiable, cheerful, entertaining, and full of knowledge, whereas you are but a little machine. — At theSe words, I saw fury sparkle in his eyes; he answered nothing, but his countenance and blush proved enough that he was violently agitated. A moment after, the King being gone to his closet, Bébé, availed himself of that instant to execute his revengeful projects ; and slily approaching, seized me by the waist, and endeavoured to push me into the fire. Luckily I laid hold with both hands of an iron hook, by which, in chimneys, the shovels and tongs are kept upright, and thus I prevented his wicked design. The noise I made in defending myself, brought back the King, who came to my assistance, and saved me from that imminent danger. He afterwards called for his servants, put Bébé into their hands, bade them inflict on him a corporal punishment proportioned to his fault, and ordered him never to appear in his presence any more.

In vain did I intercede in behalf of the unhappy Bébé,  I could not save him the first part of his sentence ; and as for the other, his Majefty did not consent to revoke it but upon condition he should beg my pardon. Bébé,  with much reluctance, submitted to this humiliation, which very likely made on him a deeper impression. In effect, he fell sick a short time after, and died.  Every body attributed his death to his jealousy, and to the vexation which the difference, that was said to be between us, had given him. I sincerely pitied him, and would not have related this circumstance, but to remark, that the smallness of our slature does not prevent us from experiencing the power of the passions. Happily for me, when I have been the sport of them, they never inspired me with any thing contrary to humanity and the laws.

It was during my slay at Lunéville, that I had the honour to cultivate an acquaintance with the celebrated Count de Tressan, who was come to reside there a little while. He took much notice of me; and the article Nain in the Encyclopédie, with an advantageous mention of me, is by him.
Memoirs of the Celebrated Dwarf Joseph Boruwlaski (London, 1788)  p.39-45. [In English and French]

By the Comte de Tressan:

Memoir sent to the Royal Academy of Sciences by M. le Comte de Tressan, 1760
...The dwarf of the King of Poland was born at seven months gestation to a peasant woman from the mountains of the Vosges;   he wasn't quite eight inches long when he was born;  a wooden shoe half full of wool served him as a cradle for more than a year.  Bébé is in his twentieth year;  he has been offered the best education, should he have been capable of profiting from it.  He is now thirty-six inches tall; his back seem bent by old age;  his complexion is faded;  one of his shoulders is much bigger than the other; his aquiline nose has become monstrous; his nasal bone is deformed in the upper part;  his mind is unformed; it has never been possible to give him any idea of Religion, nor to teach him his letters; he cannot perform the simplest task, he is an imbecile, bad tempered; the system of Descartes on the animal soul is more easily proved by the existence of Bébé than by a monkey or dog. I admit that I have never looked upon Bébé without repugnance and with that  secret horror  that the degradation of our nature almost always inspires.
Quoted by Fréron in the Année littéraire 

"Dwarf" in the Encyclopédie, Vol. 11 (1765)
A dwarf is someone who is extremely short: and to compose an article about dwarfs , our century offers me two living examples, both of whom are approximately the same age, but immensely different in physique, intellect, and disposition. The first is the dwarf of His Majesty King Stanislaus; [1] the second is in the retinue of Madame the Countess of Humieska, renowned sword bearer [ porte-glaive ] of the Polish crown. [2]

I will start with the dwarf who belongs to His Majesty the King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine. His name is Nicolas Ferry ; he was born on November 19th, 1741; his thirty-five-year-old mother had three children, of whom he is the eldest. Despite all appearances to the contrary, she did not believe she was pregnant when he was in her womb; nonetheless, she brought him into the world at the end of nine months, after suffering labor pains for forty-eight hours. At birth, he measured approximately nine inches long, and weighed approximately fifteen ounces. It is said that a clog, partially stuffed with wool, functioned as his cradle for a while, his mother being a peasant from the Vosges Mountains.

On July 25, 1746, Monsieur Kast, physician to the Queen Duchess of Lorraine, measured and weighed him with particular care: completely naked, he was nine pounds, seven ounces. After that, he kept growing until he was approximately thirty-six inches tall. He had smallpox when he was three months old; his face was not disfigured in childhood, but it has greatly changed since then.

Bébé, which is what they call him at the court of King Stanislaus—Bébé, I was saying, who currently (in 1760) is in his twentieth year, has a back that already looks like it has been bent by old age; his complexion has faded; one of his shoulders is larger than the other; his aquiline nose has become deformed; his mind is underdeveloped; and no one has been able to teach him how to read.

Madame Humieska’s dwarf, a Polish gentleman named Monsieur Boruwlaski, is extremely different from King Stanislaus’s; this young gentleman can be considered an anomaly of nature......
"Nain",  The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project.

Morand, Dissertation on Dwarfs- From the History of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris for the Year 1764
...The Academy gave an account in 1746 of the strange history of a young child called Nicolas Ferry, who, when born, was  not quite 9 inches long, and weighed but 12 ounces, and at the age of five was absolutely formed without having arrived at a greater height than 22 inches.  This singularity proved this child's happiness.  The late King of Poland, Duke of Lorrain, saw and honoured him with his beneficence.  From that moment Bebe, which was the name he gave him, never quitted his august benefactor and he died in his palace.  The Count de Tressan, who had been attached to the fortunes of that Monarch, sent the history of this singular Being to the Academy, and it was this history that engaged M. Morand in the researches just mentioned which were read to the public assembly the 14th of November 1764 and accompanied by the statue in wax of Bebe, modelled from his own person, with a wig of his own hair, and dressed in his own cloaths......

Nicolas Ferry was born at Plaisnes, a principality of Salins in Vosges.  His father and mother were of hale constitutions and normal stature.  We have said how little he was at his birth,  but did not add how weakly and puny he was.  He was carried to church on a plate spread with the tow of flax, and a wooden shoe served him for a cradle.  He never could suck his mother; his mouth was too small to take hold of the hopple; so that a goat was pitched upon to suckle him, and he had no other nurse than than animal which on her side seemed very fond of him.

He had the small-pox at six months old, and the goat's milk was at the same time his only nourishment and his only remedy.

At the age of eighteen months he began to speak;  at two years he walked almost without help, and it was then his first shoes were made, which were 18 lines long.

The coarse food of the villagers of the Vosges, such as pulse, bacon, and potatoes, was that of his infancy to the age of six years, and during that time he had some very bad fits of sickness out of which he fortunately recovered.

We are now come to the most interesting epoch of Nicholas Ferry's life.  King Stanislaus, that Titus of our age, heard this extraordinary child spoken of, and desired to see him.  He was brought to Luneville, and soon after hand no other abode than the palace of that beneficent Prince, to whom on his side he was singularly attached, though he commonly shewed very little sensibility, and it was then that he took the name of Bebe, which was give him by that Monarch.

With all the care that was taken of Bebe's education, it was not possible to bring him to any exertions of judgment or reason;  the very small measure of knowledge he had been able to acquire having never been susceptible of any notion of religion, nor capable of reasoning upon any subject; so that his mental faculties never rose much above those of a well-trained dog.  He seemed to love music, and sometimes beat measure with some justness; he likewise danced pretty exactly, but it was only by looking attentively at his master, to direct all his steps and motions according to the signs he received from him. 

Once in the fields he entered a meadow where the grass was higher than himself;  he thought himself lost in a copse, and he cried out for help;   he was susceptible of passions, such as desire, anger, jealousy, and then his discourse was without connection, and his ideas very confused.  In short, he shewed only that kind of sentiment, which arises from circumstances, from objects as they presented themselves, and from momentaneous impressions made on his senses; and the little reason he shewed did not seem to rise much above the instinct of some animals.

The Princess of Talmond endeavoured to give him some instructions, but notwithstanding all her wit she could not light up a spark of it in Bebe: The only natural consequence  from her familiarity was his being greatly attached to her, and even so jealous, that once, seeing that Lady fondle a little dog before him, he forced him out of her hands with rage, and threw him out of a window, saying, 'Why do you love him more than me?'

Till the age of fifteen Bebe had his organs free, and his whole diminutive figure very exactly and agreeably proportioned.  He was then 29 inches high.  At that age puberty began to manifest itself, but those efforts of nature were prejudicial to him.  Hitherto the juices were equally distributed throughout his whole machine; but virility troubled that harmony by enervaging his frail and weak body, impoverishing his blood, drying up his nerves and exhausting his strength;  whereupon his backbone was incurvated, his head sunk forward, his legs were enfeebled, one shoulder-blade was dislocated, his nose grew large, and Bebe, losing his gaiety, became valetudinary:  He, however, still grew four inches taller in the four followng years.

The Count de Tressan, who had attentively noted the progression of nature in Bebe, foresaw that he would die of old-age before he was thirty years old:  And, in fact, he fell after twenty-one into a sort of caducity, and those who took care of him observed in him a childhood which did not resemble that of his first ears, but rather seemed created by decrepitude.

The last year of his life he seemed quite spent. He had a difficulty in walking; the external air incommoded him unless it was very hot;  he was made to bask in the sun, which seemed to refresh  him, but he could scarce walk an hundred paces without resting.  In the month of May, 174, he had a slight indisposition, to which succeeded a cold, accompanied with a fever, which threw him into a kind of lethargy, but which he got the better of by intervals, but without being able to speak.

During the four last days of his life, his knowledge was much more perfect: Clearer and better connected ideas than he had in his greatest vigour astonished all those that were about him:  His agony was long, and he died the 9th June 1764, aged near twenty-three; and he was then thirty-three inches high.

At the opening of the body, which was made by the King's orders, by M. Perret, his first surgeon, under the inspection of Ronnow, his first physician, one of the parietal bones was found much thicker than the other, and the diploe more distended.  There was water in his chest, and the lungs in some parts adhered to the pleura.  The ribs on one side made a greater round than on the other where they were much shorter, the whole according to the irregular bent the spine had taken.  The viscera were found.

The skeleton that was kept of him presents a remarkable singularity.  At first sight it appears to be that of a child of for years;  but, when examined in the whole, and according to the proportions, one is astonished to find in it the skeleton of an adult.
English summary from The Universal Magazine of Knowledge, vol. 42, 1768

Letter on the subject of Dwarfs and Bébé in particular 
His mind was unformed, he could never be taught to read, it is true; but it is wrong to say that there were moral factors at play, and that the humiliating conviction of his weakness and delicacy discouraged him.  People that knew him, will say with me that this homunculus had the highest opinion of his little person.  We must therefore look for a physical cause for his stupidity.....
Nicolas Saucerotte in the Journal des Savants, 1768.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Bonnet on the afterlife


Juel Jens, Portrait of Charles Bonnet  Oil. 1777
Bibliothèque de Genève

In the 18th-century, perhaps for the first time in human history, thinking men confronted the prospect of death and personal annihilation without illusion.  In this striking portrait of 1777 by the Danish artist Juel Jens  the naturalist Charles Bonnet is captured in just such a moment of solemn reflection;  Bonnet  reports that Jens depicted him "mediating on the future restoration and perfection of living beings". The Bible before him is open at  First Corinthians 15:36: "That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die - O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?". The inscription reads "CHARLES BONNET, born in Geneva, 13th March 1720. FUTURI SPES VIRTUTEM ALIT ("The hope of the future sustains virtue")

 As Fernando Vidal notes in his study of 2003, Bonnet's speculation on the possibility of  resurrection, was tinged by particular sadness and hope at this time due to the death or impending death of his friend  Albrecht von Haller.  On 18th May 1777,  Haller lamented the loss of a lifetime's worth of ideas: "Alas, my brain, which soon will be a mere heap of dust!  I can hardly endure the thought that so many ideas accumulated during a long life should be lost as a child's dreams would be." Was it conceivable, Bonnet asked,  that death could "forever deprive a Leibniz, a Newton, or a Haller of the precious fruits of their intelligence and experience?" (Quoted Vidal, p.88-9, nt 84 and nt 85)

Bonnet's own beliefs were uneasily poised between materialism and Christian faith. In his view human beings were "mixed beings" in which body and soul were inextricably bound together: personal identity depended on memory and was based in the brain. Inspired by Leibniz, he speculated that  there existed within the brain an indestructible organ, a ‘little ethereal machine’, which  preserved  the soul after death and might act as the seed for a future reconstituted body.  This notion placed the idea of bodily resurrection at the centre of Bonnet's philosophy and furnished him, as he saw it, with a rational confirmation of Christian doctrine. 


Charles Bonnet Contemplation de la Nature (Amsterdam, 2nd ed.) vol.1 (1769), p.87

Fernando Vidal, "Extraordinary bodies and the physicotheological imagination",  in Gianna Pomata and Lorraine Daston, eds., The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe (2003), p.61-96.[Paper available from Academia]

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Vampires and Freethinkers

But I require unprejudiced witnesses, free from terror and disinterested, quite calm, who can affirm upon serious reflection, that they have seen, heard, and interrogated these vampires, and who have been the witnesses of their operations; and I am persuaded that no such witness will be found.
Dom Calmet  

"Either these vampires go out to suck or they do not"
Marquis d'Argens 

What! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins? Is it under those of d’Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos that we believe in vampires,and that the reverend father Dom Calmet, Benedictine priest of the congregation of St. Vannes, and St. Hidulphe, abbé of Senon—an abbey of a hundred thousand livres a year, in the neighbourhood of two other abbeys of the same revenue—has printed and reprinted the history of vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne?

A Natural Explanation?

Protestants and Freethinkers 

In the 1730s debate on vampires took place predominantly in Germany; centred mainly on the Plogojowitz and Medwegya cases. Protestant commentators, hostile to the miraculous,  readily  sought a rational explanation.  Their conclusions were relayed by uncensored French language periodical press in Holland, which tended to present them a provocatively anti-Christian (or at least anti-Catholic) tone. Thus in March 1732  Le Glaneur invites  physicians, who  have already furnished explanations for the Jansenist convulsionaries in Paris, to communicate their reflections. An essay from a correspondent duly appeared in No ix for 23rd April 1732.  In 1738 the marquis d'Argens, inveterate sceptic and freethinker, weighed in the Lettres Juives. This was an altogether more widely distributed publication.
 Dom Calmet faithfully reproduces the substance of both these considerations.  D'Argens notes that he would prefer to dismiss the vampire reports entirely but, faced with the weight of testimony, feels compelled to offer a natural explanation.  Both writers appeal primarily to the imagination of  the victims. D'Argens imbues the idea with a freethinker's contempt: "It is an easy Matter for People to fancy that they have been sucked by vampires, and so to terrify themselves by these Apprehensions, as in a short time to die of Fright".   The tales bear the marks of "an epidemick Fanaticism".   (The Glaneur suggests the ignorance and poor diet of the peasantry as contributory factors.)
D'Argens also notes the incorrupt state of the vampires' bodies "may be so well accounted for by physical Causes, as to shut out all Necessity of having recourse to Miracles" (p.130)  Certain earths have preservative qualities, and posthumous growth of hair, nails and beard have often been observed.  The fluidity of the vampires' blood may be explained by the fermentation of "nitrous particles" - as may be proved experimentally by boiling up milk with oil of tartar to create a blood-like substance. 
Finally, D'Argens takes an opportunity for a swipe at the Christian doctrine of the soul. "Either these vampires go out to suck or they do not" (p.131).Since it seems they do not appear bodily, we must suppose it is their  souls which venture abroad; its "very subtle matter" carries the blood back to the Body. But says d'Argens (quoting St. Augustine), let us blush to refute such nonsense!

Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens, ‘Lettre 137’, in Lettres Juives for 1738
English translation:


For the Catholic hierarchy, vampires posed a more immediate problem since the cases were in Catholic lands and came, directly or indirectly, within ecclesiastical jurisdiction. At first the Austrian authorities reluctantly agreed to endorse the exhumations. The Church meanwhile prevaricated.  No official pronouncement was made, though, according to Dom Calmet, in France the Sorbonne passed two resolutions between 1700 and 1710, banning the decapitation and mutilation of vampire corpses. 

Following the renewed wave of cases in the 1730s,  the Church began finally to address theoretic questions more openly.  Discussions between the Bishop of Olmutz and Guiseppe Davanzati, Archbishop of Trani, led the latter to prepare beween 1738 and 1743 a report which played a crucial role in persuading the Vatican to condemn belief in vampires as superstition.  The treatise was not published until 1774, after Davanzati’s death, but it circulated widely in manuscript and was known to have been favourably received by Benedict XIV.  It is very much a work of the Catholic Enlightenment, strongly rationalist in outlook. Davanzati holds that the Devil is unable to contravene the laws of nature, and puts forward scientific explanations for incorruptible cadavers, corpse lights, hair and nail-growth.  Ultimately he concludes that vampires had no corporeal existence, but were tricks of the mind.  The Pope himself agreed.  Having served for a decade as promotor fidei the “Devil’s advocate" in petitions for beatification, Benedict was well-versed in the complexities of decomposition:   in his manual  De  Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione (1738) he too had dismissed vampires as "fictions that have deceived the imagination". 

And Dom Calmet....

It may be noted that Dom Calmet himself had close connections to this international Catholic milieu.  He corresponded with Benedict and was personally consulted by Maria Teresa who, with the aid of her personal physician Gerard van Swieten, moved decisively against vampirism in the Austrian land in the 1750s. Not by any stretch of the imagination, was the Dissertation a naively credulous work.   Antoine Faivre, the pioneering French vampire scholar,  concluded that Calmet was cautious and adopted the "wait and see" attitude common to the Catholic hierarchy of the time.   However, it has been persuasively argued that Calmet never did endorse belief in vampires, even in 1746 [Introvigne (2001)].    The organisation of the Treatise encourages misunderstanding, since it is largely a compilation of  sources without authorial comment; conclusions are offered only at the end of each section. 

 Dom Calmet's tendency is rationalist.  He sets out from the doctrinal premise, that only God can truly perform a resurrection. He carefully  distances Scriptural and Classical parallels from contemporary cases.  He is also sceptical about other modern revenants, such as the Vrykolakas of Greece, or the uncorrupted bodies of the excommunicated in Orthodox tradition. So too he dismisses out of hand the wilder claims of the vampire reports themselves, notably that the dead "chew like hogs" in the grave.

In the first chapter of the second volume, Dom Calmet enumerates four different possible explanations of vampirism, two natural and two theological.

    1. Superstition. Vampires are purely chimerical, the result of the ignorance of the native population.
    2. Vampires are not really dead, but are living people who have been prematurely buried.  
    3. Vampires exist by Divine permission
    4. They are the work of the Devil.

The available purely natural explanations are set out at length.  None proves entirely satisfactory.  It is not possible that "imagination" alone can bring about actual deaths or account for real physical effects.  Nor can premature burial offer a solution -  even a fit person in this predicament, could not remove "four or five feet of earth" in order to emerge, wander round and return to the grave without disturbing the ground.  Medical explanations for the incorrupt corpses are fine as far as they go, but the  fundamental stumbling block still remains: how are vampires supposed to rise up and return to the grave?  -  "No one has ever replied to this difficulty, and never will".

In the first edition, Dom Calmet was content to allow diabolical intervention as a theological possibility, even though, the logistics were obscure: "perhaps we had better remain silent on this point, since God did not deign to reveal the full extent of the Devil's power nor how he operates". But by 1751 he is prepared to disregard even this caveat:  it is possible to argue that the Devil makes the bodies of the vampires subtle and "spiritualised",  but "there is no evidence, and it is unbelievable".  

Calmet is left with no other recourse than to deny the witness testimony.  He refers to the vast number of  documents and reports he has accumulated and finally concludes: "I have read and re-read them and cannot find the shadow of a probability, much less of a truth in what they report"/  "I doubt that there is another stand to take on this question other than to deny absolutely that vampires return from the dead."

The Tribulations of Dom Calmet

As Dom Calmet himself predicted, the treatise was greeted with general contempt by French literary society: the mere treatment of so ridiculous a subject was considered a breach of good taste.  "A storm was unleashed against the author; and it must be said the it was a badly chosen moment to published such a work.  It seemed to announce the abbot of Senones's intellectual decline, and this was politely observed to him" (Calmet was 77 years old). The bookseller de Bure kept him abreast of all that was said against him.  

 Even Calmet's friends could not hide their fear for his reputation;  A letter from a fellow Benedictine, warns that the work was "not at all to many people's taste" and likely to damage his reputation for learning: "In effect, how are we to be persuaded that all the old bedtime stories from our childhood are true?" His correspondent hoped that Calmet will remain in good form to answer his critics. 

The most considered attack came from the indomitable Lenglet du Fresnoy who, in his Traité historiques et dogmatiques sur les apparitions of 1751,  accused Calmet of lack of critical discrimination.  The latter replied, with some justification, that Lenglet's own corrosive scepticism undermined the credibility of the saints, threatened the Church Fathers and even perhaps cast doubt on Scripture.

As his later biographer points out, despite the bad press, the learned Benedictine might reasonably have considered himself vindicated by his impressive commercial success.

See: Auguste Digot, Notice biographique et littéraire sur Dom Augustin Calmet (Nancy 1860), p.97-8.

Later Enlightenment writers

There is quite a lot written about the Enlightenment treatment of vampires, but in fact there are relatively few references in the canonical  Enlightenment texts, and those mainly passing.  By the late 1750s the Imperial authorities had effectively stamped out "vampirism" and relegated it to the margins of folk belief: Maria Theresa's famous Decree on Vampires in March 1755 condemned vampirism as "superstition and fraud". Most freethinkers, if they bothered to consider the phenomenon at all, simply lumped it together with other forms of contemptible superstition, - see for example Jaucourt's dismissive two sentence article in the Encyclopédie which refers to Calmet's "absurd book on the subject". 


Vampires  came briefly to the  attention of Rousseau in the 1760s.  He refers to them in the Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont, published in 1765, as an example, like miracles, of a well attested but incredible phenomenon:  "If there is in the world an attested history, it is just that of vampires"/ "Nothing is lacking - depositions, certificates of notables, surgeons, curés, and magistrates. The proof in law is utterly complete".  Yet no one actually believes in vampires. An unpublished note refers to an letter in the Gazette des Gazettes for 1st November 1765, which reproduced two vampire reports from the 1730s and challenged philosophers to come up with an explanation.  As Christopher Frayling has noted, Rousseau is not really interested in vampires at all, but in the relationship between belief and authority. The tyranny of priests oblige men to accept absurdities such as vampires, and more pointedly the "scholarly subtleties in Christianity" which they cannot understand.  The analogy between vampire and victim also served Rousseau to symbolise the corrupt ties of dependency in civilised society (See Frayling & Woker, 2010)

Here is Rousseau's source in the Gazette des Gazettes


Of all the philosophes,Voltaire might be predicted to have enjoyed Dom Calmet's discomforture - after all he and Emilie had spent many happy hours at Cirey chuckling over the implausibilities of Calmet's Old Testament commentaries. However, in the early 1750s, wandering in Lorraine,  Voltaire had more pressing problems. Far from attacking Dom Calmet, he was obliged to ask him for hospitality.  On 8th June 1754, having been ejected from Colmar,  Voltaire  requested a few days sanctuary at the Abbey at Senones with its well-stocked library.  Calmet welcomed him willingly and he stayed three weeks. The two enjoyed a great many conversations. Voltaire  - with typical perversity - joined in the life of the community, eating with the monks and even attending   night-time services;  Calmet imagined he might even regain for the Church "le plus grand déïste du monde".  Behind his back Voltaire made fun to his friends of the naivety of the monks, above all their excellent abbot qui "se piquait d'historien".

It was not until after Calmet's death, when he himself was safely esconced in Ferney , that Voltaire began to incorporate  the subject of vampires into the propaganda war against "l'infâme".  The article "Resurrection" in the  Lettres philosophiques , published in 1764, refers to vampires among a number of dubious pagan parallels to Christian belief  (mostly culled directly from Calmet's treatise)  Voltaire credits Calmet  - not entirely unjustly - with the view that since the dead cannot suck the blood of the living, vampires must indeed have been resurrected.  

The article "Vampires" had to wait until The Lettres sur l'Encyclopedie, in the early 1770s. This is not a weighty piece - Voltaire probably dashed it off rapidly.  He marvels that belief in vampires could have existed in  the age of Locke, Shaftesbury,  d'Alembert and Diderot, its history printed and reprinted by the abbot of an abbey worth a hundred thousand livres a year.  Like demoniacs, convulsionaries and, more pointedly the Jesuits, the "vampire epidemic" of the 1730s has passed into history.

I can't help feeling this response is disappointing.  One of the most attractive features of the 18th-century intellectual outlook is an insatiable curiosity, even in arcane studies of mythology and folklore. Yet vampires were either dismissed entirely, or subsumed in the wider discussion of evidence and religious belief. Ironically, the most faithful representative of the Enlightenment spirit of enquiry was probably Dom Calmet himself.  Certainly engagement with the imaginative and  psychological possibilities afforded by the vampire had to wait, in France at least, until the 19th-century Romantics.


Nick Groom, The Vampire: a new history (2018), chpt.3-4 [Preview on Google Books]

Massimo Introvigne, "Antoine Faivre: father of contemporary vampire studies", 2001[conference paper, available from Academia]

Stu Burns, "And with all that, who believes in vampires?" Undead legends and Enlightenment culture".  2007 European Studies Conference Selected Proceedings [paper available from Academia]
Kathryn Morris, "Superstition, testimony and the eighteenth-century vampire debate", Preternature, 2015 4(2): p.181-202 [on JStor or available on Researchgate]

Gianfranco Malfredi, "Voltaire et les vampires", Multitudes 2008/2 No.33:p.91-99.

Christopher Frayling and Robert Wokler, "From the orang-utan to the vampire: towards an anthropology of Rousseau" in Rousseau after 200 Years (CUP, 2010), p.109-124.


Dom Calmet - Statement of method
I am then about to examine this question as a historian, philosopher, and theologian. As a historian, I shall endeavor to discover the truth of the facts; as a philosopher, I shall examine the causes and circumstances; lastly, the knowledge or light of theology will cause me to deduce consequences as relating to religion. Thus I do not write in the hope of convincing freethinkers and pyrrhonians, who will not allow the existence of ghosts or vampires, nor even of the apparitions of angels, demons, and spirits; nor to intimidate those weak and credulous, by relating to them extraordinary stories of apparitions. I do not reckon either on curing the superstitious of their errors nor the people of their prepossessions; not even on correcting the abuses which arise from this unenlightened belief, nor of doing away all the doubts which may be formed on apparitions; still less do I pretend to erect myself as a judge and censor of the works and sentiments of others, nor to distinguish myself, make myself a name, or divert myself, by spreading abroad dangerous doubts upon a subject which concerns religion, and from which they might make wrong deductions against the certainty of the Scriptures, and against the unshaken dogmas of our creed. I shall treat it as solidly and gravely as it merits; and I pray God to give me that knowledge which is necessary to do it successfully.
Book 1, General preface.

An imaginary affliction? 

D'Argens, cited in Calmet, Chpt. 9: 

I likewise assert that it is an easy Matter for People to fancy that they have been sucked by Vampires, and so to terrify themselves by these Apprehensions, as in a short time to die of Fright: For having their Heads full all Day of these strange Stories, what Wonder is it, if at Night, and in their Dreams, these Ideas should still disturb their Imagination, and produce that Effect which Terror often produces, immediate or consequential Death?  How often have we seen Persons die away on the News of some terrible Misfortune?  How frequently has even excessive Joy produced the same Effect?

In the original, D'Argens adds:

In examining the Story of the Death of these pretended Martyrs to Vampirism, I discover all the marks of an epidemick Fanaticism and I see clearly that the  Impressions of their own Fears was the true Cause of their Destruction.
Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens, Lettres Juives, 1738‘Lettre 137’, in Lettres Juives for 1738,
English translation, The Jewish Spy,  p.127-129. :

Le Glaneur, cited in Calmet, chpt 14: 

The Dutch Gleaner..... asserts that the people, amongst whom vampires are seen, are very ignorant and very credulous, so that the apparitions we are speaking of are only the effects of a prejudiced fancy. The whole is occasioned and augmented by the bad nourishment of these people, who, the greater part of their time, eat only bread made of oats, roots, and the bark of trees—aliments which can only engender gross blood, which is consequently much disposed to corruption, and produces dark and bad ideas in the imagination.

He compares this disease to the bite of a mad dog, which communicates its venom to the person who is bitten; thus, those who are infected by vampirism communicate this dangerous poison to those with whom they associate. Thence the wakefulness, dreams, and pretended apparitions of vampires.

He conjectures that this poison is nothing else than a worm, which feeds upon the purest substance of man, constantly gnaws his heart, makes the body die away, and does not forsake it even in the depth of the grave. It is certain that the bodies of those who have been poisoned, or who die of contagion, do not become stiff after their death, because the blood does not congeal in the veins; on the contrary, it rarifies and bubbles much the same as in vampires, whose
[Pg 274]
 beard, hair, and nails grow, whose skin is rosy, who appear to have grown fat, on account of the blood which swells and abounds in them everywhere.

As to the cry uttered by the vampires when the stake is driven through their heart, nothing is more natural; the air which is there confined, and thus expelled with violence, necessarily produces that noise in passing through the throat. Dead bodies often do as much without being touched. He concludes that it is only an imagination that is deranged by melancholy or superstition, which can fancy that the malady we have just spoken of can be produced by vampire corpses, which come and suck away, even to the last drop, all the blood in the body.

The French original:
Le Glaneur Historique, Moral, Litteraire et Galant: vol. 3: No.9, Supplement, 23rd April 1733

One might well side with Dom Calmet, who thought this argument was weak:

Calmet, chpt.48:

The opinion of those who hold that all that is related of vampires is the effect of imagination, fascination, or of that disorder which the Greeks term phrenesis or coribantism, and who pretend by that means to explain all the phenomena of vampirism, will never persuade us that these maladies of the brain can produce such real effects as those we have just recounted.  It is impossible that on a sudden, several persons should believe they see a thing which is not there, and that they should die in so short a time of a disorder purely imaginary. And who has revealed to them that such a vampire is undecayed in his grave, that he is full of blood, that he in some measure lives there after his death? Is there not to be found in the nation one sensible man who is exempt from this fancy, or who has soared above the effects of this fascination, these sympathies and antipathies—this natural magic? And besides, who can explain to us clearly and distinctly what these grand terms signify, and the manner of these operations so occult and so mysterious? It is trying to explain a thing which is obscure and doubtful, by another still more uncertain and incomprehensible.

Premature burial?

Calmet, Chpt 44:
Some advantage of these instances and these arguments [concerning revival of people supposed dead] may be derived in favour of vampirism, by saying that the ghosts of Hungary, Moravia, and Poland are not really dead, that they continue to live in their graves.....
That is not the principal difficulty which arrests my judgment; it is to know how they come out of their graves without any appearance of the earth having been removed, and how they have replaced it as it was; how they appear dressed in their clothes, go and come, and eat. If it is so, why do they return to their graves? why do they not remain amongst the living? why do they suck the blood of their relations? Why do they haunt and fatigue persons who ought to be dear to them, and who have done nothing to offend them? 

First essays in Medical Forensics?

D'Argens, cited in Calmet, chpt 12: 

I come next to speak of the dead Bodies which were found full of Blood, their Beards, Nails, and Hair of their Heads grown. All Philosophers know how ready the People in general are, and even what a Propensity there is in some Historians to magnify whatever has the Air of being supernatural. However, not to insist too much upon this, it is far from being impossible to account physically for these Circumstances

Experience teaches us that there are certain kinds of earth which will preserve dead bodies perfectly fresh. The reasons of this have been often explained, without my giving myself the trouble to make a particular recital of them. There is at Toulouse a vault in a church belonging to some monks, where the bodies remain so entirely perfect that there are some which have been there nearly two centuries, and appear still living.....

As to the growth of the nails, the hair and the beard, it is often perceived in many corpses. While there yet remains a great deal of moisture in the body, it is not surprising that during some time we
[Pg 272]see some augmentation in those parts which do not demand a vital spirit.

The fluid blood flowing through the canals of the body seems to form a greater difficulty; but physical reasons may be given for this. It might very well happen that the heat of the sun warming the nitrous and sulphurous particles which are found in those earths that are proper for preserving the body, those particles having incorporated themselves in the newly interred corpses, ferment, decoagulate, and melt the curdled blood, render it liquid, and give it the power of flowing by degrees through all the channels.

This opinion appears so much the more probable from its being confirmed by an experiment. If you boil in a glass or earthen vessel one part of chyle, or milk, mixed with two parts of cream of tartar, the liquor will turn from white to red, because the tartaric salt will have rarified and entirely dissolved the most oily part of the milk, and converted it into a kind of blood. That which is formed in the vessels of the body is a little redder, but it is not thicker; it is, then, not impossible that the heat may cause a fermentation which produces nearly the same effects as this experiment. And this will be found easier, if we consider that the juices of the flesh and bones resemble chyle very much, and that the fat and marrow are the most oily parts of the chyle. Now all these particles in fermenting must, by the rule of the experiment, be changed into a kind of blood. Thus, besides that which has been discoagulated and melted, the pretended vampires shed also that blood which must be formed from the melting of the fat and marrow.

Dom Calmet essentially agrees with this analysis:

Calmet, Chpt 51:

The fluidity of the blood, the ruddiness, the suppleness of these vampires, ought not to surprise any one, any more than the growth of the nails and hair, and their bodies remaining undecayed. We see every day, bodies which remain uncorrupted, and retain a ruddy color after death. This ought not to appear strange in those who die without malady and a sudden death; or of certain maladies, known to our physicians, which do not deprive the blood of its fluidity, or the limbs of their suppleness.

With regard to the growth of the hair and nails in bodies which are not yet decayed, the thing is quite natural. There remains in those bodies a certain slow and imperceptible circulation of the humors, which causes this growth of the nails and hair, in the same way that we every day see common bulbs grow and shoot, although without any nourishment derived from the earth.

The same may be said of flowers, and in general of all that depends on vegetation in animals and plants.

A stumbling block

Whether the vampires are truly dead or not, Calmet sees no rational solution as to how they rise from the grave.

Calmet, Chpt 51:
But the grand difficulty is to explain how the vampires come out of their graves to haunt the living, and how they return to them again. For all the accounts that we see suppose the thing as certain, without informing us either of the way or the circumstances, which would, however, be the most interesting part of the narrative.

How a body covered with four or five feet of earth, having no room to move about and disengage itself, wrapped up in linen, covered with pitch, can make its way out, and come back upon the earth, and there occasion such effects as are related of it; and how after that it returns to its former state, and re-enters underground, where it is found sound, whole, and full of blood, and in the same condition as a living body? Will it be said that these bodies evaporate through the ground without opening it, like the water and vapors which enter into the earth, or proceed from it, without sensibly deranging its particles? It were to be wished that the accounts which have been given us concerning the return of the vampires had been more minute in their explanations of this subject.
Supposing that their bodies do not stir from their graves, that it is only their phantoms which appear to the living, what cause produces and animates these phantoms? Can it be the spirit of the defunct, which has not yet forsaken them, or some demon, which makes their apparition in a fantastic and borrowed body? And if these bodies are merely phantomic, how can they suck the blood of living people? We always find ourselves in a difficulty to know if these appearances are natural or miraculous.

Calmet, Chpt 60:

I have already proposed the objection formed upon the impossibility of these vampires coming out of their graves, and returning to them again, without its appearing that they have disturbed the earth, either in coming out or going in again. No one has ever replied to this difficulty, and never will. To say that the demon subtilizes and spiritualizes the bodies of vampires, is a thing asserted without proof or likelihood.

The work of the Devil?

Calmet, Chpt 60:

But should it be allowed that the demon could reanimate these bodies, and give them the power of motion for a time, could he also lengthen, diminish, rarefy, subtilize the bodies of these ghosts, and give them the faculty of penetrating through the ground, the doors and windows? There is no appearance of his having received this power from God, and we cannot even conceive that an earthly body, material and gross, can be reduced to that state of subtility and spiritualization without destroying the configuration of its parts and spoiling the economy of its structure; which would be contrary to the intention of the demon, and render this body incapable of appearing, showing itself, acting and speaking, and, in short, of being cut to pieces and burned, as is commonly seen and practiced in Moravia, Poland, and Silesia. These difficulties exist in regard to those persons of whom we have made mention, who, being excommunicated, rose from their tombs, and left the church in sight of everybody.

We must then keep silence on this article, since it has not pleased God to reveal to us either the extent of the demon's power, or the way in which these things can be done. There is even much appearance of illusion; and even if some reality were mixed up with it, we may easily console ourselves for our ignorance in that respect, since there are so many natural things which take place within us and around us, of which the cause and manner are unknown to us. (chpt 51)

The Encyclopédie

Vampire: this is the name given to supposed demons who during the night draw blood from the bodies of the living, and carry it to corpses from whose mouths, nostrils and ears blood is seen to exude.  Father Calmet has written an absurd book on the subject, of which one wouldn't have thought him capable, but which serves to prove how the human spirit is swept along by superstition.


Resurrection: The profound philosopher dom Calmet finds a much more conclusive proof in vampires.  He has seen some of these vampires leaving cemeteries to suck the blood of sleeping people;  it is obvious that they could not suck the blood of the living if they were still dead;  they were therefore resuscitated.  The argument is peremptory.

Vampire:  WHAT! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins ? Is it under those of d'Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos that we believe in vampires, and that the reverend father Dom Calmet, Benedictine priest of the congregation of St. Vannes, and St. Hidulphe, abbé of Senon— an abbey of a hundred thousand livres a year, in the neighborhood of two other abbeys of the same revenue—has printed and reprinted the history of vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed Marcilli ?

These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.........

After slander, nothing is communicated more promptly than superstition, fanaticism, sorcery, and tales of those raised from the dead. There were "broucolacas" in Wallachia, Moldavia, and some among the Polanders, who are of the Romish church. This superstition being absent, they acquired it, and it went through all the east of Germany. Nothing was spoken of but vampires, from I730 to 1735; they were laid in wait for, their hearts torn out and burned. They resembled the ancient martyrs—the more they were burned, the more they abounded.

Finally, Calmet became their historian, and treated vampires as he treated the Old and New Testaments, by relating faithfully all that has been said before him.

The most curious things, in my opinion, were the verbal suits juridically conducted, concerning the dead who went from their tombs to suck the little boys and girls of their neighborhood. Calmet relates that in Hungary two officers, delegated by the emperor Charles VI., assisted by the bailiff of the place and an executioner, held an inquest on a vampire, who had been dead six weeks, and who had sucked all the neighbourhood. They found him in his coffin, fresh and jolly, with his eyes open, and asking for food. The bailiff passed his sentence; the executioner tore out the vampire's heart, and burned it, after which he feasted no more.

Who, after this, dares to doubt of the resuscitated dead, with which our ancient legends are filled, and of all the miracles related by Bollandus, and the sincere and revered Dom Ruinart? You will find stories of vampires in the "Jewish Letters" of d'Argens, whom the Jesuit authors of the "Journal of Trévoux" have accused of believing nothing. .......

There no longer remained any question, but to examine whether all these dead were raised by their own virtue, by the power of God, or by that of the devil. Several great theologians of Lorraine, of Moravia, and Hungary, displayed their opinions and their science. They related all that St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and so many other saints, had most unintelligibly said on the living and the dead...

But all these stories, however true they might be, had nothing in common with the vampires who rose to suck the blood of their neighbours, and afterwards replaced themselves in their coffins. They looked if they could not find in the Old Testament, or in the mythology, some vampire whom they could quote as an example; but they found none. It was proved, however, that the dead drank and ate, since in so many ancient nations food was placed on their tombs.

The difficulty was to know whether it was the soul or the body of the dead which ate. It was decided that it was both. Delicate and unsubstantial things, as sweetmeats, whipped cream, and melting fruits, were for the soul, and roast beef and the like were for the body......

The result of all this is that a great part of Europe has been infested with vampires for five or six years, and that there are now no more; that we have had Convulsionaries in France for twenty years, and that we have them no longer; that we have had demoniacs for seventeen hundred years, but have them no longer; that the dead have been raised ever since the days of Hippolytus, but that they are raised no longer; and, lastly, that we have had Jesuits in Spain, Portugal, France, and the two Sicilies, but that we have them no longer.
Dictionnaire philosophique
. Translation from The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version  (1901),  Vol. 14
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