“Hunchbacked” refers to one “having a protuberant or crooked back” (OED “hunchbacked, adj.”). The term combines “hunch” (of obscure origin, see OED “hunch, n.”) and “back” (from Germanic, via Old English “bæc,” see OED “back, n.1”).
The first recorded use of the word “hunchbacked” [hʌnʃbakt or hʌnʃbækt] occurs in the period of Early Modern English in the Second Quarto printing of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III, in which Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV, refers to Richard III—who historically reigned 1483–1485—as “that foule hunch-backt toade” (Shakespeare 1598, fol. I3r). Through the seventeenth century, the term appears almost exclusively in literary texts serving as a descriptor for often malicious literary characters in Early Modern English drama and poetry (see Mitchell & Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 95–117). While “hunch-backt” as an adjective remained more prevalent, the word began to appear as a noun in many contexts in the eighteenth century. As a noun, hunchback found a place outside of the literary realm in the eighteenth century and began to appear in scholarly essays and even histories (e.g., Hutchinson 1718).
In terms of orthography, early versions of the term frequently hyphenated “hunch” and “back” to create “hunch-back.” The form “hunch-backt” was common in early uses such as Shakespeare’s. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a change from the “-t” suffix to “-’d.” This appears, for example, in J. Hayward’s 1635 translation of G. F. Biondi’s Italian love poem Donzella Desterrada. This went on to be the prevailing spelling until 1809 when the Medical & Physical Journal. published an edition eliminating both the hyphen and apostrophe: “hunchbacked.” This spelling prevails in current usage.
The word “hunch” is first recorded describing a being’s back in Stephen Batman’s 1582 edition of John Trevisa’s English translation of Anglicus Bartholomeus’s thirteenth-century De proprietatibus rerum; it describes a camel, which “hath a hunch on his backe” (Bartholomaeus 1582, 352). Previously, in Wynken de Worde’s 1495 edition, the phrase had appeared as “a bonche on his backe” (Bartholomaeus 1495, BB2v).
The first recorded appearance of the compound “hunchbacked” was likewise as a variant on “bunchbackt” in the Second Quarto publishing of Shakespeare’s Richard III. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, hunch first appears
in the combination hunch-backed substituted in the 2nd Quarto of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1598) iv. iv. 81, for the earlier and ordinary 16–17th cent. word bunch-backed , which the 1st Quarto and all the Folios have here, and which all the Quartos and all the Folios have in the parallel passage i. iii. 246. This substitution of hunch-backed in the one passage might be thought to be a mere misprint of the 2nd Quarto, but it is retained in all the five subsequent Quartos 1602–1634. (OED “hunch, n.”)
For most of the word’s history, “hunchback” served as an umbrella term to characterize anyone with an observable excessive spinal curvature. Those with spinal differences were often seen and depicted in literature as individuals cursed by God, products of witchcraft, or containing some inherent malevolence. As a result, people labeled as hunchbacks were often ostracized in larger society and the familial unit where they could be sources of shame or indicators of suspected crimes.
References to individuals with spinal differences can be seen as far back as the Torah / Christian Old Testament. Leviticus Chapter 21, presents a list of restrictions for those with “blemishes” including a hunched back. In the scriptural context, this forbids those with spinal differences from making offerings to God and attending religious services. For centuries, this biblical reference fueled the exclusion of those with this particular physicality from important cultural and religious practices.
In the Early Modern Period, literary characters described as “hunchbacked” often grapple with ostracization in compelling and emotional ways, but at the same time still manifest prevailing prejudices of the time. Shakespeare’s Richard III poignantly characterizes the social consequences of his physicality when he says:
But I that am not shapte for sportiue trickes,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glasse,
I that am rudely stampt and want loves maiesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling Nymph:
I that am curtaild of this faire proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformd, vnfinisht, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogs barke at me as I halt by them:
Why I in this weake piping time of peace
Haue no delight to passe away the time,
Vnlesse to spie my shadow in the sunne,
And descant on mine owne deformity:
And therefore since I cannot prooue a louer
To entertaine these faire well spoken daies.
I am determined to prooue a villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these daies.
(Shakespeare 1598, A2r–A2v).
Through Richard, Shakespeare shows how exclusion from important social rituals, such as having romantic partners, creates the maliciousness rather than something inherent in disability. Throughout the Early Modern Period drama and poetry continue to challenge the superstitious justification for ostracizing those with the physicality. F. Hutchinson’s Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718) delivers a scathing critique of the religious justification used to ostracize those with spinal differences. In the essay, Hutchinson details an account of a boy’s supposed devil-inspired vision where he sees “a Man with a Hunch-Back higher than his head, an ugly man with a white Beard, a Crow’s Head, round a great Breath, ugly like a Toad, an Urchin” (Hutchinson, 198). This would eventually lead to the accusation that Alice Freeman, an elderly woman who apparently matched the boy’s vision, was a witch. Before Freeman was to be punished, the boy confessed to counterfeiting his visions resulting in Freeman’s release. Hutchinson goes on to lament how contemporary religious sentiments create a mob mentality that can result in harm to people—such as Alice Freeman—who were already ostracized from mainstream society.
Evidence and Images
Article on the discovery of Richard III’s remains (includes image)
Bartholomaeus, Anglicus. Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum]. Translated by John Trevisa; edited and revised by Wynken de Worde. [Westminster : Printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1495]. STC (2nd edition) 1536.
—. Batman vppon Bartholome his booke De proprietatibus rerum, newly corrected, enlarged and amended: with such additions as are requisite, vnto euery seuerall booke: taken foorth of the most approued authors, the like heretofore not translated in English. Profitable for all estates, as well for the benefite of the mind as the bodie. Translated by John Trevisa; edited and revised by Stephen Batman. London: Imprinted by Thomas East, dwelling by Paules wharfe, . STC (2nd edition) 1538.
Biondi, G. F. Donzella Desterrada. Translated by J. Hayward. 1635.
Fabyan, Robert. The New Chronicles of England and France. 1st ed., 1516.
Gage, Thomas. The English-American his Travail by Sea and Land: or, A New Survey of the West-India’s. London, 1648.
Hutchinson, F. An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft. London: R. Knaplock and D. Midwinter, 1718.
Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Portal, M. “Considerations on the Nature and Treatment of Some Hereditary or Family Diseases”. Medical and Physical Journal 21, no. 122 (April 1809): 281–296. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5694110/.
Shakespeare, William. The tragedie of King Richard the third Conteining his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murther of his innocent nephewes: his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserued death. As it hath beene lately acted by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants. London: Printed by Thomas Creede, for Andrew Wise, dwelling in Paules Church-yard, at the signe of the Angell, 1598. STC (2nd edition) 22315.
Roman Stokes and Leah Parker, University of Southern Mississippi