As a child, I was taught never to mock the afflicted. It’s a good question where or when that rule began, because the afflicted were fair game in medieval times.
An Old Woman, aka The Ugly Duchess, is graphic evidence that the bounds of acceptable mockery have narrowed, or at the very least shifted to one side, since the 15th century. She is so far from any ideal of feminine beauty that some have conjectured that she was afflicted with a disease.
Others have wondered, at a time when gender is a troubled concept like never before, whether she’s a ‘she’ at all. Ignore her bust for a second and focus on the countenance. Or else look at the shoulders, or her heavy lack of female grace.
In the carnival period, a man would dress in similar garb as the Sausage Woman. He’d be courted by Morris dancers, who pretended to find him enticing. Clearly, the idea is not just a symptom of our gender-bending times.
A joke in poor taste
But, on balance, the evidence suggests that the duchess is neither diseased nor transgender. She is, beyond dispute, a joke in poor taste.
The difficulty one finds understanding her, and the difficulty confronted by the curators who have attempted to explain her, is the same as in explaining any joke. If you have to explain it at all, the joke is never likely to raise a laugh. Instead, it’s killed by the explanation.