Monthly Archives: September 2014

Hog-Faced Woman ISO Single Male for Love, Marriage, Transformation

Human culture is a strange and wonderful thing.

I’ve been reading about a genre of folk stories that have as a central character a “hog-faced woman,” and I’m left shaking my head at the uncanniness of human imagination.

These tales seem to have arisen in the early 17th century concurrently in England, The Netherlands, and France. Most of the stories begin with a rich woman refusing charity to a beggar and her children, calling them “piggish” for asking for alms. The beggar turns out to be a witch who in revenge curses the child in the woman’s womb. The child is born perfectly healthy but with the face of a pig.

The first story of the pig-faced woman to have wide reach in England was circulated in a tract titled “A Certaine Relation of the Hog-faced Gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker.”

ohn Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Bell. Line engraving Gent's magazine Published: 1827

“A certaine relation of the hog-faced gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker … borne at Wirkham … on the river Rhyne. Who was bewitched in her mothers wombe in … 1618 … And can never recover her true shape, tell she be married …” Wellcome Library, London

(The story of Tannakin Skinker may or may not have had a basis in fact–the parallels to the pre-existing legends make me think it’s a fabrication.)

In keeping with earlier versions of the legend, Tannakin’s mother refuses to give alms to an elderly woman, who curses her, proclaiming, ‘As the Mother is Hoggish, so Swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withal.”

Tannakin is born healthy but with a snout and a preference for eating out of a silver trough.Tannakin’s father consults a famous scholar of magic, who tells them Tannakin will retain the snout while still a virgin, but that on her wedding night—provided she not be wed to “a Clowne, Bore or Pesant”—she will be cured. (Kathy Haas of the Rosenbach Collection points out that the story follows the traditional medieval trope of “the loathly lady.”)

The family moves to London and finds a likely prospect. On Tannakin’s wedding night, when her new husband reaches for her, he finds a beautiful young woman with a human’s nose. When he tries to kiss her, she tells him,

Sir, I am indeed no other than I now seeme unto you; and of these two things I give you free choice, whether I shall appeare to you thus as you now see me, young, faire, and lovely in your bed, and all the daytime, and abroad, of my former deformity: or thus beautifull in the day, to the sight of your friends, but in your armes every night of my former Age and Uglinesse: of these two things I give you free choice of, which till you have resolv’d me, there can be no other familiarity betwixt in: therefore without pause give me a speedy answer

Here’s where I fall in love with the story. Tannakin husband chooses not to choose, instead letting Tannakin decide. Tannakin is given the choice, agency in determining the contours of her face and her fate. She says,

Now Sir, you have given me that which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty; and know I, was by a wicked and sorcerous step-dame inchanted, never to returne to my pristine shape, till I was first married, and after had received such power from my Husband · And now from henceforth I shall be the same to you night and day, of that youth and lively-hood which you now see mee; till Time and Age breed new alteration, even to the last period of my life.

“That which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty”: isn’t that wonderful?

One thing I find fascinating about this story is that it doesn’t display the early modern period’s affinity for correspondences in physiognomy. As Laura Gowing argues in her book Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England, “In the literature of monstrous births, women become the conduit by which bestial features of body parts–in some cases, whole animals–found their way into human reproduction. Seeing a hare could cause a hare-lip; a jockey’s wife might give birth to a child with a horse’s head.” Given the resemblance of the woman’s face to a pig, the reader might expect to hear Tannakin described as hungry, greedy, gluttonous, and bestial. Instead, she shows great patience, indulgence, and wisdom.

The trope of the hog-faced woman trope continued in popularity well into the 19th century, culminating in the strange episode of “The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square.”

Today, the legend of Tannakin Skinker and the trope of the pig-faced woman is all but dead, but there are still echoes. Check out this video of “Mad Madam Mims” from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone (especially around 1:03 and 1:19):

There is also the (IMO underrated) movie Penelope starring Cristina Ricci. There are too many similarities—the nose, the marriage, the curse—for it to be a fluke. Here’s the trailer.

As we’ve seen, in the tale of Tannakin Skinker, the “hog-faced woman” character is allowed to choose her own fate. She has agency and control. This theme is pushed even further in Penelope, in which the main character runs away after meeting cute with her potential husband. The plot is too complicated to get into, but suffice to say that Penelope breaks the curse by learning to love herself with the help of Reese Witherspoon in a fine turn as a Vespa-riding sub-category of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Is it cheesy? Yes. Do I love it anyway? Yes.

And do I think it’s a fascinating twist on a centuries-old tale that reveals much about 21st-century American ideals of beauty, individualism, and self-actualization. You betcha.

Work cited:
Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century EnglandNew Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Other reading:
Kathy Haas talks about “The Hog-faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker”  in The Rosenblog: From the Staff of the Rosenback at the Philadelphia Free Library. 

Tassie Gniady discusses Tannakin Skinker in her chapter “Do You Take this Hog-Faced Woman to be Your Wedded Wife” in Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 (London: Ashgate, 2010)

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Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing

Top Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing:

1. watch old episodes of The Animaniacs

2. help daughter melt hot glue so that she can make incredibly complex jewel bauble for cosplaying obscure anime/manga character

3. research bicycle trips through Italy/Denmark/Ireland (after driving to supermarket less than a mile away)

4. unpack fall/winter clothes in triple-degree heat because magical thinking is a thing (I ❤ autumn)

5. let dog out

6. check Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr (need to build platform, right?)

7. let dog in

8. read blogs about productivity and daily schedules of famous writers

9. let dog out

10. drink wine.

(Here’s a video from The Animaniacs in case you’ve forgotten–or never knew–how brilliant that show was.)

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Great Globs of Glowing Urine

File:JosephWright-Alchemist.jpg

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone (1771). Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.

But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.

By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”

And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.

While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:


Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.

Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)

And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):

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