This is a slightly weird but interesting account of an alleged skeleton of a giant. In reading Edward J. Wood’s book Giants and Dwarves (1868), I came across a passage claiming that a French Capuchin missionary named Jerome de Rhetel had reported to another clergyman, Jerome de Monceaux, that in Macedonia, near Thessalonica, there was discovered embedded in the wall of a village the massive skeleton of a giant, with a skull capable of holding hundreds of pounds of corn and with seven-inch teeth that weighed fifteen pounds apiece. It took only a few seconds to determine that Wood, like other Victorian writers, was copying nearly verbatim from Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, the oldest edition of which I traced back to 1804, though it may be older. But there the trail seemed to grow cold.
Fortunately, searching for Father de Rhetel’s name turned up some additional information, and it looked for a while like the source for Kirby was our old friend Antoine Augustin Calmet, the vampire-hunter and author of the Dictionnaire Historique (1720, 1728, 1730, etc.), wherein the aforementioned account is described in the 1728 Supplement (incorporated into the 1730 expanded edition and first published in 1720 in the Nouvelles dissertations importantes et curieuses) in enough detail that it seemed to me that this was the primary source of the story, or at least as close to it as I could come. However, it can’t be the direct source for the English accounts, as we shall see, and finding the original was a pain in the ass.
First, here is Kirby’s version, the direct source for almost ever English language account of the incident, as evidenced by later versions referencing Kirby directly or indirectly as the source:
According to the relation of Father Jerome de Monceaux, the skeleton of a giant ninety-six feet long, was found in a wall, in a village named Chailliot, six leagues from Thessalonica, in Macedonia. This fact was communicated to him by Father Jerome de Rhetel, missionary in the Levant, who in a letter written from the island of Scio, adds that this giant's skull was found entire, and was so capacious as to contain 210 pounds of corn; that a tooth belonging to the under jaw, when drawn, weighed fifteen pounds, and was seven inches two lines in length; that the smallest bone of the little toe of one of his feet was equal to it in size; that the arm bone from the elbow to the wrist, was two feet four inches, eight lines round; and that two soldiers with their jackets and coats with large sleeves, found no difficulty in running their arms thus covered through the cavity of this stupendous bone. Quenel, French Consul at Thessalonica, ordered an account of this monstrous skeleton to be drawn up and deposited among other public acts in Chancery. He received from the Pacha, the principal bones, and purchased the remainder from other persons who had taken them into their possession.
Now here is Calmet’s version, which differs in many of its proper nouns:
In the year 1701, in the month of January, in a village named Coloubella, six leagues from Thessalonica in Macedonia, there was discovered the body of a giant, buried near the sea in an ancient wall, long and thick. The sea has gradually eroded this wall over many centuries, and the rain finally caused it to collapse and brought to light the giant of which we speak. He was 96 royal feet long, and his skull could easily hold fifteen bushels (Paris measure) of wheat. A tooth weighed fifteen pounds, and was seven inches and two lines of royal measure in length. Another tooth, without its root, weighed two and a half French pounds. Yet another tooth weighed two pounds eleven ounces and six drachmas. A fourth tooth weighed two pounds thirteen ounces.
All of the French translations in this post are my own.
Now, since Kirby’s version contains some details not found in Calmet, as well as some mistranslations, it would seem that there must be an additional source, which initially I thought had been intermediary between the two. For example, in 1749 Antoine Gachet d’ Artigny repeated the story in Nouveaux memoires d’histoire, and the details changed. This time the event took place in 1691 in Colloubella, and the wording, while almost identical to Calmet’s, is closer to Kirby’s overall:
In the year 1691, in the month of January, in a village named Colloubella, six leagues from Thessalonica in Macedonia, there was found the skeleton of a giant 96 feet long, and the skull also could hold fifteen bushels (Paris measure) of wheat. A tooth weighed fifteen pounds, and an arm bone was two feet and eight lines in circumference. Two officers were able to place in the hollow of this bone their arms, covered with their jackets and sleeves. Everyone threw themselves into getting some of the parts, and they carried the principal ones to the Pasha and Great Lord. Mr. Quinet, the French consul at Thessalonica, made an official report to the King, his master. Father Jérôme de Rhetel, a Capuchin missionary in the Levant, witnessed the discovery and made (an account of) the thing to Father Jérôme de Mousicaux, his brother in Paris, at (the Rue de) Faubourg Saint-Honoré. To make it most authentic, he had co-sign the letter M. Quinet, Constantin Peronne, Loicheta, Flot Chirurgien, and Jean Attuchi, who having said that they saw these bones, signed on as witnesses.
It’s rather amazing how the details keep changing. Note that the French consul’s name became contracted, a feature found in the English versions.
My mistake was in assuming that Calmet was close to the origin point just because his was the oldest published version I could find. All became clear when I discovered that in 1748, François Planque, published in the Bibliothèque choisie de médecine the closest I can come to the original text of the whole mess, which was originally written and distributed in 1692, the “Histoire générale des géants” by the physician Claude Comiers d’Ambrun. This settles once and for all the issue of who screwed up what and puts the whole taxonomy of varying accounts into stark relief. Here is what he said:
I am obliged to speak of what the Father Hierome des Monceaux, Capuchin missionary of the Rue Saint Honore, just told me about the skeleton of a giant 96 feet long, which was found last September, in the wall of the village of Cailloubella, which they call Chailliot, six leagues from Thessalonica in Macedonia. Here are the other particulars, as they were written from the island of Scio by the Father Hierome de Rhetel of the same Order, a missionary in the Levant.
In addition to this passage, which is as close as I can come to the source for other writers, many of the remaining details appear in a letter written from Smirne in 1727, an extract of which appeared in Planque’s edition. The consul’s report and Father Jerome’s letter appear to contain the same information. I won’t go through the whole story again, but it ends with this:
From the computation that was made, and by measuring the space occupied by this skeleton, it is believed that the monstrous body was 170 pans in height, that is to say, twenty-one canes of eight pans each, each pan being about ten inches.
Even though the measurements aren’t the same (probably due the passing decades), I imagine that it’s pretty clear that the skeleton is that of a fossil elephant or other similar Ice Age megafauna.
Anyway, it’s likely that there are some additional seventeenth century French texts that presented either Father Jerome’s or the consul’s reports more fully, but I imagine this is close enough to let us see what happened and how the story grew and spread.
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