Turold the dwarf is perhaps the most captivating of all the figures depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry [scene 10; plate 1]. We see him in the county of Ponthieu, holding the two horses of Duke William’s emmisaries, who have just arrived at Count Guy’s residence on their mission to demand Harold’s handover to the Norman duke. There are only fifteen characters named in the whole work; all but four are easily identifiable, known from other sources for the part they played in the drama of 1066. Who is the dwarf engaged in such a menial task, and why has he been singled out so enigmatically by name?
For reasons that must lie at the very heart of the mystery, whoever designed the tapestry has taken pains to point out that the dwarf is called Turold, for the name has been carefully lowered and placed immediately above the dwarf’s head. There has been some controversy in the past as to whether the person called Turold is the dwarf or the Norman emmisary standing next to him. But it is important to note that the word ‘Turold’ stands alone and does not form part of any sentence. Five other times a person is named in the tapestry by a stand-alone name. Harold (twice), William, Robert and Eustace – all are on occasions designated in this way. In each case the name has been placed above the head of the person in question. So, despite the objections of some, there can really be little doubt that the name ‘Turold’ refers to the dwarf. It is possible that it refers to the knight as well; we have seen how fond the artist was of teasing us with multiple meanings, and Turold was a common name. What can be stated with more probability, however, is that the dwarf is called Turold, and it is the dwarf who provides us with the most compelling mystery.
Turold is the dwarf in the strictest medical sense. Some observers have questioned this, preffering to see his apparently small stature as an attempt at perspective. Strangely, however, this debate has proceeded without bringing even minimal medical evidence to bear on the issue. Not only is Turold small. His head is especially large for the rest of his body; indeed his head and neck account for almost a third of his total height. In this, he is unlikely any other figure in the tapestry; more normally, the proportions of head and neck to the rest of the body is a fifth or a sixth. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect an anatomically correct portrait. But the disproportionately large head is a key symptom of a type of dwarfism known as achondroplasia. Caused by a random genetic mutation, achondroplasia is the most common form of dwarfism encountered today; its incidence cannot have been any different in medieval times. thus ‘la teste ot grosse’ ‘the head is large’ – was how the 12th century poet Béroul described a dwarf named Frocin. they also tend to be well built. Turold’s normal intelligence and upper body strength are shown by his ability to control the two horses. His ponty beard shows that he is not a child. Very short limbs, strong upper body, disproportionately large head, normal intelligence, beard – all this goes a long way towards showing that the artist of the tapestry has left us with a portait of an adult male achondroplastic dwarf.
But who can this dwarf be? Our quest to answer this question is not helped by the fact that ‘Turold’ was a common name. Unfortunately for us, many a proud Norman parent chose to call his or her infant son ‘Turold’ for it was a forceful name, carrying a frisson of the pagan past; it was ultimately derived from the Old Norse personal name Thorvaldr, which literally meant ‘the power of Thor’. Introduced into Normandy by invading Vikings of the 9th century, it became extremely popular in the form of Turold or Thorold (and other variant spellings). Surviving documents represent only the tip of the iceberg but they attest to 28 Turolds living in Normandy before 1066. the name was particularly common in Channel Islands. The Domesday Book listed 14 invaders called Turold who by 1086 had established themselves in England. The popularity of the name in medieval times has left its mark in the current surnames of Thorold in England, Torode in Guernsey and Théroude (among others) in France, and in several place names in Normandy as well.
There is, of course, no reason why a dwarf should not be someone of remarkable achievement. One very intriguing theory about Turold, advanced from time to time, is that he was the genius who designed the Bayeux Tapestry. Intriguing as this theory is, it is unlikely to be the case. We must not forget that the evidence suggests that the designer of the tapestry was English, or at least connected with St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. (…)
Turold’s unusual costume comprises a pair of short, wide breeches with a pair of under-trousers beneath. In 1966 Rita Lejeune pointed out that from other evidence this curious costume can be identified as that of the ‘jongleur’ – in other words, an entertainer who might be a jester, acrobat, juggler, minstrel, bard or other performer. The dwarf Turold, it seems, is a jongleur. Jongleurs added a sparkle and colour to medieval life that is not often evident from the dry tomes of history. most of the surviving information comes from the centuries that followed 1066, but things cannot have been so very different in Turold’s day. The repertoire of a troop jongleurs was an exciting as it was various. They plied their trade in marketplaces, along the pilgrim routes and in the great baronial castles. Some would juggle with apples, balls or knives. Others sang exciting tales, long heroic sagas told from memory 1, or showed off their skill at rhyming and repartee. There were jongleurs who could imitate the sound of birds; others performed tricks with dogs, horses and other animals or who told bawdy jokes. Many were musicians who might be heard playing viols, rotes, cymbals, tambourines or bells. in fact, jongleurs could do practically anything that an audience eager for distraction might pay to see. Only one aspect of a jongleur’s performance survivies in the english word ‘juggler’.
At the very top of the profession was a jongleur who had become attached to the court of a wealthy patron. The resident jongleur would provide the entertainment at his lord’s castle and would accompany him when he visited other important persons. (…) As for Turold, the fact that he is named and depicted in the tapestry suggests that he was one of these more important jongleurs, a performer who had been patronised by a member of the nobility. And his specific association with Count Guy in the embroidery suggests that he was none other than the count’s own jongleur and household dwarf. The tapestry shows Turold only once; his feet are firmly set on the soil of Picardy; and he is depicted in the same scene as the count of Ponthieu. There is certainly nothing that suggests that the dwarf has, just now, travelled from Normandy, as a companion to duke William’s two knights. (…) Our Turold was a high-class jongleur. His name has been embriodered proudly in the company of kings and nobles.
from Andrew Bridgeford’s book ’1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry”, 2004
- Scholars estimate that the poem ‘The Song of Roland” was written, possibly by a poet named Turold, between approximately 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. ↩