Source: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages
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 scrapbook. 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 Cornishman?"
"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
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 St. Thomas A 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
theye 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
"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 pardoned be for sales,
Never, for Burnet's sake, the Lauderdales;
For Becket's sake, Kent always shall have tails."
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
After Struys, Hornemann reported that, between the Gulf of Benin 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 pygmy race of this nature.
MM. Arnault and VayssiA"re, 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 them 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
"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
About ten years ago, a newspaper paragraph recorded 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.
Yet, notwithstanding all this testimony in favor of tailed men and
women, it is simply a matter of impossibility for a human being to
have a tail, for the spinal vertebrA in man do not admit of
elongation, as in many animals; for the spine terminates in the os
sacrum, a large and expanded bone of peculiar character, entirely
precluding all possibility of production to the spine as in caudate
 "Actes of English Votaries."
 "Voyages de Jean Struys," An. 1650.
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