Archive for February 3rd, 2010

What a (t)wit!: Swift, Stella and the phrenologists

3 February 2010

Contributed by Ciaran Toal

At a meeting room above Sackville Street in late August 1835 the skull of Jonathan Swift sat on a table alongside that of his friend Stella.  In turn, the gathered phrenologists, who believed character and mental ability could be read from the shape of the cranium, rose to make their pronouncements.  The leader, George Combe, went first.  He noted that if Swift’s skull had ‘been the cranium of a common man…he would have been hanged.’  Stella’s skull, the phrenologists claimed, showed characteristics of benevolence, wit and appropriation, but also destructiveness and amativeness.  Swift, by contrast, demonstrated signs of a love of children and hope, but a lack of benevolence.  Perhaps most importantly the phrenologists were able to claim that, with regards to wit, he was rather ‘small’. Read More