Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/Tailed Men
I WELL remember having it impressed upon me by a Devonshire nurse, as a little child, that all Cornishmen were born with tails; and it was long before I could overcome the prejudice thus early implanted in my breast against my Cornubian neighbors. I looked upon those who dwelt across the Tamar as “uncanny,” as being scarcely to be classed with Christian people, and certainly not to be freely associated with by tailless Devonians. I think my eyes were first opened to the fact that I had been deceived by a worthy bookseller of L——, with whom I had contracted a warm friendship, he having at sundry times contributed pictures to my scrap-book. I remember one day resolving to broach the delicate subject with my tailed friend, whom I liked, notwithstanding his caudal appendage.
“Mr. X——, is it true that you are a Cornish-man?”
“Yes, my little man; born and bred in the West country.”
“I like you very much;—but—have you really got a tail?”
When the bookseller had recovered from the astonishment which I had produced by my question, he stoutly repudiated the charge.
“But you are a Cornishman?”
“To be sure I am.”
“And all Cornishmen have tails.”
I believe I satisfied my own mind that the good man had sat his off, and my nurse assured me that such was the case with those of sedentary habits.
It is curious that Devonshire superstition should attribute the tail to Cornishmen, for it was asserted of certain men of Kent in olden times, and was referred to Divine vengeance upon them for having insulted S. Thomas à Becket, if we may believe Polydore Vergil. “There were some,” he says, “to whom it seemed that the king’s secret wish was, that Thomas should be got rid of. He, indeed, as one accounted to be an enemy of the king’s person, was already regarded with so little respect, nay, was treated with so much contempt, that when he came to Strood, which village is situated on the Medway, the river that washes Rochester, the inhabitants of the place, being eager to show some mark of contumely to the prelate in his disgrace, did not scruple to cut off the tail of the horse on which he was riding; but by this profane and inhospitable act they covered themselves with eternal reproach, for it so happened after this, by the will of God, that all the offspring born from the men who had done this thing, were born with tails, like brute animals. But this mark of infamy, which formerly was everywhere notorious, has disappeared with the extinction of the race whose fathers perpetrated this deed.”
John Bale, the zealous reformer, and Bishop of Ossory in Edward VI.’s time, refers to this story, and also mentions a variation of the scene and cause of this ignoble punishment. He writes, quoting his authorities, “John Capgrave and Alexander of Esseby sayth, that for castynge of fyshe tayles at thys Augustyne, Dorsettshyre men had tayles ever after. But Polydorus applieth it unto Kentish men at Stroud, by Rochester, for cuttinge off Thomas Becket’s horse’s tail. Thus hath England in all other land a perpetual infamy of tayles by thee wrytten legendes of lyes, yet can they not well tell where to bestowe them truely.” Bale, a fierce and unsparing reformer, and one who stinted not hard words, applying to the inventors of these legends an epithet more strong than elegant, says, “In the legends of their sanctified sorcerers they have diffamed the English posterity with tails, as has been showed afore. That an Englyshman now cannot travayle in another land by way of marchandyse or any other honest occupyinge, but it is most contumeliously thrown in his tethe that all Englyshmen have tails. That uncomely note and report have the nation gotten, without recover, by these laisy and idle lubbers, the monkes and the priestes, which could find no matters to advance their canonized gains by, or their saintes, as they call them, but manifest lies and knaveries.”
Andrew Marvel also makes mention of this strange judgment in his Loyal Scot:—
“But who considers right will find, indeed,
’Tis Holy Island parts us, not the Tweed.
Nothing but clergy could us two seclude,
No Scotch was ever like a bishop’s feud.
All Litanys in this have wanted faith,
There’s no—Deliver us from a Bishop’s wrath.
Never shall Calvin pardon’d be for sales,
Never for Burnet’s sake, the Lauderdales;
For Becket’s sake, Kent always shall have tails.”
Bailey in his Dictionary, under the head of “Kentish longtails,” endeavours to shift the charge to Dorsetshire; and Lambarde, in his “Perambulation of Kent,” is equally sensitive on the subject. Vieyra, the famous Portuguese preacher, says that Satan was tail-less till his fall, when that appendage grew to him “as an outward and visible token that he had lost the rank of an angel, and was fallen to the level of a brute.”
It may be remembered that Lord Monboddo, a Scotch judge of last century, and a philosopher of some repute, though of great eccentricity, stoutly maintained the theory that man ought to have a tail, that the tail is a desideratum, and that the abrupt termination of the spine without caudal elongation is a sad blemish in the origination of man. The tail, the point in which man is inferior to the brute, what a delicate index of the mind it is! how it expresses the passions of love and hate, how nicely it gives token of the feelings of joy or fear which animate the soul! But Lord Monboddo did not consider that what the tail is to the brute, that the eye is to man; the lack of one member is supplied by the other. I can tell a proud man by his eye just as truly as if he stalked past one with erect tail, and anger is as plainly depicted in the human eye as in the bottle-brush tail of a cat. I know a sneak by his cowering glance, though he has not a tail between his legs; and pleasure is evident in the laughing eye, without there being any necessity for a wagging brush to express it.
Dr. Johnson paid a visit to the judge, and knocked on the head his theory, that men ought to have tails, and actually were born with them occasionally; for said he, “Of a standing fact, sir, there ought to be no controversy; if there are men with tails, catch a homo caudatus.” And, “It is a pity to see Lord Monboddo publish such notions as he has done; a man of sense, and of so much elegant learning. There would be little in a fool doing it; we should only laugh; but, when a wise man does it, we are sorry. Other people have strange notions, but they conceal them. If they have tails, they hide them; but Monboddo is as jealous of his tail as a squirrel.” And yet Johnson seems to have been tickled with the idea, and to have been amused with the notion of an appendage like a tail being regarded as the complement of human perfection. It may be remembered how Johnson made the acquaintance of the young Laird of Col, during his Highland tour, and how pleased he was with him. “Col,” says he, “is a noble animal. He is as complete an islander as the mind can figure. He is a farmer, a sailor, a hunter, a fisher: he will run you down a dog; if any man has a tail, it is Col.” And notwithstanding all his aversion to puns, the great Doctor was fain to yield to human weakness on one occasion, under the influence of the mirth which Monboddo’s name seems to have excited. Johnson writes to Mrs. Thrale of a party he had met one night, which he thus enumerates: “There were Smelt, and the Bishop of St. Asaph, who comes to every place; and Sir Joshua, and Lord Monboddo, and ladies out of tale.”
There is a Polish story of a witch who made a girdle of human skin and laid it across the threshold of a door where a marriage-feast was being held. On the bridal pair stepping across the girdle they were transformed into wolves. Three years after the witch sought them out, and cast over them dresses of fur with the hair turned outward, whereupon they recovered their human forms, but, unfortunately, the dress cast over the bridegroom was too scanty, and did not extend over his tail, so that, when he was restored to his former condition, he retained his lupine caudal appendage, and this became hereditary in his family; so that all Poles with tails are lineal descendants of the ancestor to whom this little misfortune happened. John Struys, a Dutch traveller, who visited the Isle of Formosa in 1677, gives a curious story, which is worth transcribing.
“Before I visited this island,” he writes, “I had often heard tell that there were men who had long tails, like brute beasts; but I had never been able to believe it, and I regarded it as a thing so alien to our nature, that I should now have difficulty in accepting it, if my own senses had not removed from me every pretence for doubting the fact, by the following strange adventure:—The inhabitants of Formosa, being used to see us, were in the habit of receiving us on terms which left nothing to apprehend on either side; so that, although mere foreigners, we always believed ourselves in safety, and had grown familiar enough to ramble at large without an escort, when grave experience taught us that, in so doing, we were hazarding too much. As some of our party were one day taking a stroll, one of them had occasion to withdraw about a stone’s throw from the rest, who, being at the moment engaged in an eager conversation, proceeded without heeding the disappearance of their companion. After a while, however, his absence was observed, and the party paused, thinking he would rejoin them. They waited some time, but at last, tired of the delay, they returned in the direction of the spot where they remembered to have seen him last. Arriving there, they were horrified to find his mangled body lying on the ground, though the nature of the lacerations showed that he had not had to suffer long ere death released him. Whilst some remained to watch the dead body, others went off in search of the murderer, and these had not gone far, when they came upon a man of peculiar appearance, who, finding himself enclosed by the exploring party, so as to make escape from them impossible, began to foam with rage, and by cries and wild gesticulations to intimate that he would make any one repent the attempt who should venture to meddle with him. The fierceness of his desperation for a time kept our people at bay, but as his fury gradually subsided, they gathered more closely round him, and at length seized him. He then soon made them understand that it was he who had killed their comrade, but they could not learn from him any cause for this conduct. As the crime was so atrocious, and, if allowed to pass with impunity, might entail even more serious consequences, it was determined to burn the man. He was tied up to a stake, where he was kept for some hours before the time of execution arrived. It was then that I beheld what I had never thought to see. He had a tail more than a foot long, covered with red hair, and very like that of a cow. When he saw the surprise that this discovery created among the European spectators, he informed us that his tail was the effect of climate, for that all the inhabitants of the southern side of the island, where they then were, were provided with like appendages.”
After Struys, Hornemann reported that, between the Gulf of Berlin and Abyssinia, were tailed anthropophagi, named by the natives Niam-niams; and in 1849, M. Descouret, on his return from Mecca, affirmed that such was a common report, and added that they had long arms, low and narrow foreheads, long and erect ears, and slim legs.
Mr. Harrison, in his “Highlands of Ethiopia,” alludes to the common belief among the Abyssinians, in a pigmy race of this nature.
MM. Arnault and Vayssière, travellers in the same country, in 1850, brought the subject before the Academy of Sciences.
In 1851, M. de Castelnau gave additional details relative to an expedition against these tailed men. “The Niam-niams,” he says, “were sleeping in the sun: the Haoussas approached, and, falling on them, massacred theirs to the last man. They had all of them tails forty centimetres long, and from two to three in diameter. This organ is smooth. Among the corpses were those of several women, who were deformed in the same manner. In all other particulars, the men were precisely like all other negroes. They are of a deep black, their teeth are polished, their bodies not tattooed. They are armed with clubs and javelins; in war they utter piercing cries. They cultivate rice, maize, and other grain. They are fine looking men, and their hair is not frizzled.”
M. d’Abbadie, another Abyssinian traveller, writing in 1852, gives the following account from the lips of an Abyssinian priest: “At the distance of fifteen days’ journey south of Herrar is a place where all the men have tails, the length of a palm, covered with hair, and situated at the extremity of the spine. The females of that country are very beautiful and are tailless. I have seen some fifteen of these people at Besberah, and I am positive that the tail is natural.”
It will be observed that there is a discrepancy between the accounts of M. de Castelnau and M. d’Abbadie. The former accords tails to the ladies, whilst the latter denies it. According to the former, the tail is smooth; according to the latter, it is covered with hair.
Dr. Wolf has improved on this in his “Travels and Adventures,” vol. ii. 1861. “There are men and women in Abyssinia with tails like dogs and horses.” Wolf heard also from a great many Abyssinians and Armenians (and Wolf is convinced of the truth of it), that “there are near Narea, in Abyssinia, people—men and women—with large tails, with which they are able to knock down a horse; and there are also such people near China.” And in a note, “In the College of Surgeons at Dublin may still be seen a human skeleton, with a tail seven inches long! There are many known instances of this elongation of the caudal vertebra, as in the Poonangs in Borneo.”
But the most interesting and circumstantial account of the Niam-niams is that given by Dr. Hubsch, physician to the hospitals of Constantinople. “It was in 1852,” says he, “that I saw for the first time a tailed negress. I was struck with this phenomenon, and I questioned her master, a slave dealer. I learned from him that there exists a tribe called Niam-niam, occupying the interior of Africa. All the members of this tribe bear the caudal appendage, and, as Oriental imagination is given to exaggeration, I was assured that the tails sometimes attained the length of two feet. That which I observed was smooth and hairless. It was about two inches long, and terminated in a point. This woman was as black as ebony, her hair was frizzled, her teeth white, large, and planted in sockets which inclined considerably outward; her four canine teeth were filed, her eyes bloodshot. She ate meat raw, her clothes fidgeted her, her intellect was on a par with that of others of her condition.
“Her master had been unable, during six months, to sell her, notwithstanding the low figure at which he would have disposed of her; the abhorrence with which she was regarded was not attributed to her tail, but to the partiality, which she was unable to conceal, for human flesh. Her tribe fed on the flesh of the prisoners taken from the neighboring tribes, with whom they were constantly at war.
“As soon as one of the tribe dies, his relations, instead of burying him, cut him up and regale themselves upon his remains; consequently there are no cemeteries in this land. They do not all of them lead a wandering life, but many of them construct hovels of the branches of trees. They make for themselves weapons of war and of agriculture; they cultivate maize and wheat, and keep cattle. The Niam-niams have a language of their own, of an entirely primitive character, though containing an infusion of Arabic words.
“They live in a state of complete nudity, and seek only to satisfy their brute appetites. There is among them an utter disregard for morality, incest and adultery being common. The strongest among them becomes the chief of the tribe; and it is he who apportions the shares of the booty obtained in war. It is hard to say whether they have any religion; but in all probability they have none, as they readily adopt any one which they are taught.
“It is difficult to tame them altogether; their instinct impelling them constantly to seek for human flesh; and instances are related of slaves who have massacred and eaten the children confided to their charge.
“I have seen a man of the same race, who had a tail an inch and a half long, covered with a few hairs. He appeared to be thirty-five years old; he was robust, well built, of an ebon blackness, and had the same peculiar formation of jaw noticed above; that is to say, the tooth sockets were inclined outwards. Their four canine teeth are filed down, to diminish their power of mastication.
“I know also, at Constantinople, the son of a physician, aged two years, who was born with a tail an inch long; he belonged to the white Caucasian race. One of his grandfathers possessed the same appendage. This phenomenon is regarded generally in the East as a sign of great brute force.”
About ten years ago, a newspaper paragraph re-corded the birth of a boy at Newcastle-on-Tyne, provided with a tail about an inch and a quarter long. It was asserted that the child when sucking wagged this stump as token of pleasure.
According to a North-American Indian tradition all men were created originally with tails, tail long-haired, sleek, and comely. These tails were their delight, and they adorned them with paint, beads and wampum. Then the world was at peace, discord and wars were unknown. Men became proud and forgot their Maker, and He found it necessary to disturb their serenity by sending them a scourge which might teach them humility, and make them realize their dependence on the Great Spirit. Then He amputated their tails, and out of these dejecta membra fashioned women—who, say the Kikapoos, retain traces of their origin, for we find them ever trailing after the men, frisky and impulsive.
Yet, notwithstanding all this testimony in favor of tailed men and women, I profess myself dubious; and shall yield only when a homo caudatus has been caught and shown to me.
Original footnotes 
- “Actes of English Votaries.”
- Quarterly Review, No. 244, p. 446.
- “Voyages de Jean Struys,” An. 1650.
- Atherne Jones, Trad. N. American Indians, iii. 175.