A Dwarf’s Life in Sixteenth-Century Geneva

I’ve never done a search for information on dwarves in sixteenth-century Geneva and I’m not sure how much one would find in the Council and Consistory registers, but I did recently come across this illuminating tidbit from the life of Michel Die, a dwarf living in Geneva in 1550.

Michel Dye, from Arsena, dwarf. This dwarf entered here [the Council chambers] and said that Robert de La Marche, Marshal of France, would happily take him into his service. And because of this, he would like to go there and would like permission to do so, which he asked for and requested.

Regarding this, the request made on the part of the said Lord Marshal was discussed. And regarding all of this, it was decided that since the said boy, who is neither citizen nor bourgeois of this city, but is from Arsena and asks for permission, that permission be given him and that we write to the Lord Marshal copious recommendations and that he not require the said dwarf to change religion, but that he treat him humanely.

Michel Dye, de Arsena, nain. Icy est entré ce nain qu’a proposé commen Robert de La Marche, Mareschal de France, le auroit volontier à son service. Et pour ce y desireroit y aller, de quoy toutesfois il vouldroit avoir licence, laquelle il a demandee et requise.

Surquoy est esté parlé de la requeste fete de la part dudit sieur mareschal. Et sus le tout est arresté que puysque ledit garson, qui n’est ny citoyen ny bourgois de ceste cité, mais est de Arsena et demande licence, que licence luy est donnee et que l’on escripve audit sieur mareschal les r[ecommandati]ons bien amples et qu’il ne contrenne point ledit nain à changer de religion, mais qu’il le traicte humainement. [RC 45, f. 75v (25 août 1550)].

Somewhat later, in the Consistory (R.Consist. V, p. 271), we find the Lord François Paquet questioned regarding “nain” or “nein” which was sold to the Marshal Robert IV de La Marck, duc de Bouillon, for the substantial sum of 12,000 florins. That the affair concerned the rich banker Legier Mestrezat and François Paquet, a diplomat who became interpreter for the king of France. Given the people involved and the massive sum of money, we took the “nain” in question to be a “nant” (nans, namp) which is a security or collateral (for example: “But when our cousin from Britany well and loyally gave us the sum that my predecessors had loaned him against the nant of the city of Brest…”; Chron. de Flandres, cited in Godefroy, Dictionnaire). The passage above throws our reading into question, but even so we have troubling imagining that a even a duke and a Marshal of France could have taken such a liking to a teenage dwarf that he would have paid a 12,000 florin finders fee! So barring additional evidence, we stick to our reading that the 12,000 florins concerned a financial instrument, an IOU for a debt that was purchased as a sort of banking transaction, the way mortgages are purchased in modern-day America perhaps.

As for Michel Die, we know nothing of his fate and can only hope that, as the Geneva Council wished, the Marshal of France treated him humanely. Still, the fact that the Council felt the need to exhort the Marshal to do so indicates a level of doubt and suggests that dwarves were treated with something less than dignity and humanity.

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