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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Hog-faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker

So what are you going to be for Halloween this year? If you haven't picked yet, perhaps you could go as Mistris Tannakin Skinker, the hog-faced woman. According to a 1640 pamphlet in our collection, Mistris Skinker was born in 1618 with the snout of a pig after her mother turned away a beggar woman who was also a witch. The woman left muttering, "As the mother is hoggish, so swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withall." Mistris Skinker, lovely apart from her deformity, eats from a silver trough and speaks only in grunts, although she can make her desires known in writing.

A certaine relation of the hog-faced gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker … London: J.O., 1640
Rosenbach Museum & Library EL1 .A1do     
The only hope for Mistris Skinker lies in marriage to a gentleman, but finding a husband proves difficult. Her parents dress her in beautiful clothes and offer a £ 40,000 dowry, but even fortune-seeking prospective suitors find her snout too much to stomach.

At this point the pamphleteer jumps into a retelling of John Gower's Tale of Florent (found in Gower's Confessio Amantis, of which the Rosenbach owns a great 15th-century manuscript copy). The Tale of Florent is another "loathly lady" tale in which a knight marries a hideously ugly woman, only to have her curse lifted. She tells her husband he has the choice between her appearing beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by day and beautiful by night. He cannot decide and when he offers her the choice,  the spell is truly broken and she remains lovely both day and night.

The pamphleteer of Tannakin Skinker explicitly leaves the relation of the Tale of Florent and the tale of Mistris Skinker as an exercise for the reader. The closing paragraph relates that she now lives in London, either in Covent Garden or Blackfriars.

Although the theme of the loathly lady was nothing new in the seventeenth century (a popular medieval motif, it had appeared not just in Gower but in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale and the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, among others), the twist of the pig-faced woman proved to be quite popular. Legends of pig-faced women (and their silver troughs) appeared regularly in popular culture well into the nineteenth-century. Sheridan Le Fanu, the Irish author who wrote the vampire tale Carmilla, even incorporated a concocted "Bretagne ballad" about a pig-faced woman into his 1864 novel "Uncle Silas."

If the pig-faced woman has caught your interest, there is apparently a book entitled The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square: And Other London Medical Marvels. Or you could spend $1.59 on your own pig snout and reenact the tale at your next costume party.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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