In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.
“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”
This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.
In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.
These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.
If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.
The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.
In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:
“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”
June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).
This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.
 The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.
Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)