Renaissance natural philosophy was a broad field by today's standards, combining the empirical study of the natural world - today's biology, zoology, geology, etc. - with more philosophical questions, such as whether Nature was a conscious force acting intentionally, and whether Nature was independent of God. From the late 14th century onward, there was a heightened desire to study nature and the unusual (due to increasing contact with distant countries), which led natural philosophers to pay significantly more attention to wondrous occurrences. Wonders of nature were characterized by their strangeness, as well as by their rarity, and were attributed to a variety of causes.

Medical men, who were also trained in natural philosophy, were the main promoters and chroniclers of wonders. Pierre Belon (1517?-1564). Les obseruations de plusieurs singularitez et choses mémorables: trouuées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays estranges, rédigées en trois livres ... Paris: Guillaume Cauellat, 1555.

Pliny the Elder's ethnographic interpretation of the monstrous - in which monsters inhabited distant lands - started to crumble with increasing travel to distant countries and the exploration of other continents.

In Les Observations, Belon, a French apothecary, described one of his trips to the eastern Mediterranean. Whereas his fellow travelers were interested in the ruins of Greece and Rome, Belon proved to be curious about the contemporary world, and gave an account of what he called the ‘singularities’ that he found in the different countries he visited. He found the inhabitants exotic, but far from the fantastic beings described in Antiquity by Pliny the Elder.

Antonio Benivieni (1443-1502). De abditis non nullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis. [Florence: Philippi Giuntae Florentini, 1507.]

Benivieni, a distinguished Florentine pathologist, was interested in using dissection to discover causes of death. His posthumous treatise De Abditis..., or On the Several Hidden and Strange Causes of Disease and Cure, paid attention, perhaps more than any previous author, to ‘unusual' physical conditions. He was also interested in natural and preternatural cures, which included the use of astral influences; occult natural properties in gems, plants or people; and occasionally simply the power of imagination. His work briefly described over one hundred medical cases, and ended with a case of conjoined twins, which had been put on display in Florence by their mother.

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Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576). Somniorum Synesiorum, omnis generis insomnia explicantes, libri iiii ... Quibus accedunt, ejusdem haec etiam: De libris propriis. De curationibus & praedictionibus admirandis. Basel: Per Sebastianum Henricpetri [1585].

For Cardano, a practicing Italian physician and polymath, wondrous natural occurrences were the key to explaining the physical world. They are mentioned throughout his treatise De Curationibus et praedictionibus admirandis (On Marvelous Cures).

Partly due to the writings of medical men such as Cardano and Benivieni, wonders (including monstrous beings) were increasingly seen as part of the everyday world, rather than on the periphery of the unknown world.

Konrad Gesner (1516-1565). Historia animalium. Liber IV … Zurich: Apud Christoph. Froschouerum, 1558.

Konrad Gesner, a well-known natural philosopher called the ‘Pliny of Germany’, taught medicine and philosophy. His work focused on Old World plants and animals and aimed, like many natural histories of the time, to have a genuinely encyclopedic scope in both coverage of subject and sources consulted. This desire to mention (please close up the space between this and the following text—Word is being wonky)

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all the aspects of a plant or animal led him to include both mythical and real monstrous beings. The importance attributed to marine monsters is probably due to the biblical idea that the sea life was particularly well-developed and unusual.
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Julius Obsequens. Des prodiges. Plus trois livres de Polydore Vergile sur la mesme Matiere ... Lyon: Jan de Tournes, 1555.

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Included here are two treatises. The first treatise was written by Obsequens, a Roman writer from the 4th century A.D., whose work on prodigies was first printed by the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius in 1508. The second treatise was written by Vergil Polydore, an erudite theologian from Italy who flourished in the middle of 16th century. With a rising interest in the wondrous, it was common during the 16th century to reprint classical works on prodigies. Although Renaissance writers were largely inspired by these works, they were also critical of them, and providing an eschatological explanation for prodigies. In some instances, such as in Des Prodiges, classical naturalistic and contemporary eschatological views on prodigies were juxtaposed.

Konrad Lykosthenes (1518-1561). Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, quae praeter naturae ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus, ab exordio mundi usque ad haec nostra tempora, acciderunt … Basel: Per Henricum Petri, [1557].

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Usually known by the Greek form of his name, Lycosthenes, Konrad Wolffhart, an Alsatian humanist and Protestant, was one of many Renaissance scholars who cited Julius Obsequens’s treatise on prodigies. Lycosthenes’s popular work was translated into several languages.

Like other chroniclers of prodigies in the 16th and 17th centuries, Lycosthenes introduced monsters in the context of a group of related terrestrial and celestial natural phenomena. For him, many monsters and other portents had natural causes, although what they were was often difficult to determine. Therefore, he determined that the responsibility for some wondrous phenomena lay with God.


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