During the 17th century, a change occurred in the way in which the educated classes wrote about their experiences with natural phenomena. The medieval, scholastic style of generalized statements about how things usually occur shifted to detailed prose describing specific events or experiments. The writings of the philosopher Francis Bacon played a major a role in this change. He also had a decisive influence on the perception of wonders and monsters, as they evolved from objects of fear or wonderment to objects of purely scientific study.

Bacon intended to reform the study of nature in part by presenting the abnormal as a useful category of scientific understanding. For this philosopher, as for many of his time, one could understand the ‘norm’ through investigating the abnormal. Thus, practicing physicians sought to understand the healthy or normal by using knowledge about the pathological.

Jacques Duval (1555?-1615?). Des hermaphrodits, accovchemens de femmes : et traitement qui est requis pour les releuer en sante ... Roven: Imprimerie de David Gevffroy, 1612.

This medical treatise, On hermaphrodites, childbirth, and the medical treatment of mothers and children was written after Duval witnessed a case of hermaphroditism. In 1601, in a small town in France, Marie Le Marcy, realized that she was, in fact, a man, and decided to live as such. When Marie, now called Marin, fell in love with a woman and was married, Marin was arrested and sentenced to death for sodomy. Marin escaped the sentence thanks to the expert testimony of Jacques Duval, a physician with a learned interest in hermaphroditism, who examined ‘him’ more closely than did his colleagues.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626). “New Atlantis”. A worke unfinished. In his: Sylva sylvarvm ... London: Printed by J.F. for William Lee, 1651.

Francis Bacon’s utopian text New Atlantis portrayed a desire to comprehend the whole of knowledge. In this allegorical work, Bacon created “Salomon’s house,” a learned society. Its members would discover how the universe worked, and would take as their starting point a classification of the whole of natural philosophy. Bacon saw experiments as essential for the advancement of knowledge and demanded for every possible topic, (including teratology), the systematic collection of all conceivable facts.

Although Bacon criticized the attention given to prodigies, he considered monsters useful because he felt it was in the examination of the monstrous and the unusual that the normal could best be investigated.

Sir John Floyer (1649-1734). “A Relation of two monstrous pigs, with the ressemblance of humane faces, and two young turkeys joined by the breast.” In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the month of December, 1699… London: John Martyn, 1700 .

The Philosophical Transactions were published by the Royal Society of London, a scientific society founded in 1662 following the Baconian model, and therefore concerned with an extremely wide range of questions regarding the natural world. The Transactions were a site for international scientific debates in which monstrous births served as a way to investigate general theories of reproduction and of the development of the foetus.

Following Bacon’s celebration of the pleasures of learning and his insistence on the importance of experimentation, members of scientific societies were occupied with experiments, sometimes made at great expense, as shown here.

William Durston. “A Narrative of a monstrous birth in Plymouth, October 22, 1670; together with the anatomical observations …” In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, November 14, 1670 … London: John Martyn, 1670.

A meticulously prepared anatomical description of monstrous cases constituted the main portion of scientific teratological papers of the period. Wonders were notoriously ephemeral, however, and funding for scientific research was rarely available. Occasionally, zealous scientists overcome by more practical concerns had to abandon their research. Thus, William Durston wrote at the end of his report that he would have pursued his anatomical observations on a monstrous birth further, but that ‘time and the tumultuous concourse of people, as also the night, and likewise the Father’s importunity to hasten the birth of the grave, hindred us.

Miscellanea curiosa sive ephemeridum medicophysicarum germanicarum Academiae… Naturae Curiosorum …1689 …Nuremberg: Wolfgangus Mauritius Endterus, 1690.

The Miscellanea curiosa was published by the scientific society of the Collegium Naturae Curiosorum founded in Germany in 1651. The publication of the Miscellanea was the main function of the society. It followed the model of the Philosophical Transactions, except that it was dedicated to medicine and related fields (such as physics, botany, anatomy, pathology, and chemistry). In its pages could be found much discussion, and numerous illustrations, of monstrosities and abnormalities.