During the 16th and 17th centuries, interest in the wondrous led to a deluge of literature about prodigies. A prodigy was a wondrous event or being which stemmed, in most cases, from a misperception, or creative interpretation of an actually occurring phenomenon. The "prodigy book" was a new and successful publishing genre facilitated by the invention and development of printing throughout Europe. Although there was an increasing number of books, there were few documented prodigies, resulting in the repeated use of the same illustrations to accompany stories of monsters.

Unique and extraordinary creatures, monstrous births were considered to be prodigies. Many chroniclers tried to explain the existence of such departures from ‘normal’ by juxtaposing both natural causes (following Aristotle), and divine responsibility, (following St. Augustine's idea that Nature reflects the will of God). Monsters were thus viewed as signs and portents through which God communicated with man. Especially during the religious wars of the 16th century, they were often interpreted as political or religious omens.

Tales of the monstrous were also written for the pleasure of wealthy audiences. Published in lavishly produced books, they were a way for medical writers and scholars to try to attract potential patrons who would have been bored with more practical issues.


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Jakob Ruff (1500-1558). De conceptu et generatione hominis, et iis quae circa hec potissimum consyderantur, libri sex ... Zurich: Christophorus Froschoverus, 1554.

Jacob Ruff (or Rueff), a city physician of Zurich, Switzerland, was responsible for the instruction and examination of midwives. His book was intended for midwives, pregnant women and physicians, as well as for a general scholarly audience. Divided into six books, the fifth book integrated a discussion of imaginary monstrosities with problems of reproduction. Ruff combined Aristotle's and Albert Magnus's theories on the causes of monstrosity with divine causes.


Arnaud Sorbin, Bishop of Nevers (1532-1606). Tractatus de monstris, quae a temporibus Constantini hucusque ortum habuerunt, ac iis, quae circa eorum tempora mise acciderunt, ex historiarum, cum Graecarum, tum Latinarum testimoniis ... Paris: Apud Hieronymum de Marnef, & Gulielmum Cavellat, 1570.

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Arnaud Sorbin was a popular Catholic preacher. His treatise on monsters, a collection of short stories, was intended to promote the Roman Catholic religion by entertaining for the public. It was reprinted in 1580 in Boaistau's Histoires Prodigieuses.

The present illustration is a reference to "the monk-calf" which appeared in a pamphlet published in 1523 by Luther and Melanchton. Protestant preachers interpreted this prodigy as a sign of the supposedly prophesized ruin of the Roman church. For Sorbin, on the other hand, it symbolized the sin of the Reformation.


Pierre Boaistuau (d. 1566). Histoires prodigieuses, extraictes de plusieurs fameux autheurs, grecs & latins, sacrez & prophanes mises en nostre langue par ... Paris: Jacques Macé, 1567.

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Boaistuau’s extremely successful book was reprinted many times. It combined contemporary accounts of documented monstrous births and fantastic beings, including the monster of Ravenna.

Documented in many contemporary publications, the monster of Ravenna was one of the earliest monstrous births to attain international notoriety. It also became one of the most symbolic monsters. Following the pattern of prodigious tales, it was inspired by real events. A child was born with severe birth defects in the Italian city of Ravenna. Shortly thereafter, Italian forces were defeated in the Battle of Ravenna. The monstrous birth then became a symbol of the Italians’ defeat. Portrayed with the torso and feet of a bird, the monster symbolized the effects of the supposedly Italian sin of sodomy, tempered, however, by a certain degree of virtue.


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Ambroise Paré (1510?-1590). Les oevvres de m. Ambroise Paré... Auec les figures & portraicts tant de l'anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, & de plusieurs monstres ... Paris: Chez G. Buon, 1575.

Paré was a famous French surgeon whose books were significant in the development of surgery. His treatise on monsters, Des Monstres et prodiges (book XXIV in his complete works), was influential. Although he brought few new ideas to this subject, Paré did produce a brilliant synthesis of the teratological thought of his time, drawing on the works of Cardano, Ruff and Boaistau. Like other commentaries on monsters, his work, which considered marine, animal, and human monsters, is dominated by a sense of wonder and joy in the variety of creation. He organized the causes of monstrosity in four categories: the direct will of God; the agency of devils and demons; human will (including spiteful human artifice); and the imperfection of nature. His work was intended for a broad audience.


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