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.”
“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.
Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.
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)