Monsters in Seventeenth-Century Society

Extract from Alice's unpublished essay, 'The Fascination of Monsters in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy':

To the natural philosopher a monster was something that did not fit into established categories. A monster could be anything out of its natural place (such as an animal born of a woman), anything that crossed natural boundaries (a mermaid or a dog with a human head), something malformed (siamese twins or a tree grown into a cross), or something new or exotic that did not have a place in the accepted order (fossils or a chimpanzee).

Ambroise Paré’s Des Monstres, begins by explaining that, ‘Wee call Monsters, what things soever are brought forth contrarie to the common decree and order of nature. So wee term that infant monstrous, which is born with one arm alone, or with two heads.’ Marine monsters ‘are wondrous to us, or rather monstrous, for that they are not verie familiar to us. For the raritie and vastness of bodies, is in some sort monstrous’, thus to Paré a monster was anything that did not fit the orthodox pattern, be it deformed or simply unusual (Pare 1573, 1649:676).

The desire to discover the causes of such phenomena was powerful in an age when natural philosophy was only just beginning to gain credibility. Finding natural causes for monsters would demonstrate not only the usefulness and relevance of philosophy to the general public but would show that philosophy could cope with phenomena that were commonly feared.

But more than discovering what monsters were and what they might mean, that they existed at all raised questions, especially as to their causes: if monsters could not be made to fit the existing natural categories the question had to be asked as to why God had allowed or even caused such abnormality: could God make mistakes? Was nature at fault?

But the most fundamental reason for philosophers’ fascination was that monsters necessitated redrawing the boundaries of what was ‘normal’ so as to be accommodated in an improved system of classification. Thus, as Bacon suggested, ‘by rare and extraordinary works of nature the understanding is excited and raised to the discovery of Forms capable of including them’ (Bacon 1620:170).

In the seventeenth century the wealth of new discovery revealed just how much man had yet to learn about his world. In order for it to be learnt not only the boundaries of nature and those of society, but even those of knowledge would have to be redrawn.


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