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]
Print Friendly and PDF