Monstrous History: The Abiding Influence of Ambroise Paré

The whole of that part of the cranium or brain case, with its usual contents, which is naturally covered with hairy scalp, was absolutely wanting, and the foramen magnum occipitis covered with a blood exerescence […] I feared it would survive.[i]

—Dr. Stryker, Letter to the Editor, Feb 28, 1809

Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath […] his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set […] were fixed on me.

—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Chapter 5, Frankenstein 1818

Frankenstein_engravedBy the time Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound was published, the Gothic tradition was well established, though still evolving. The early romances that shaped Radcliffian Gothic were both revisited and reshaped by the sublime imagination of Romantic writers (a group to whom Shelley herself belonged.) However, increasing interest in and access to scientific discourse provided additional material; widespread debate about electrical stimulation and reflex, William Cullen and Robert Whytt’s work on the nervous system, and Charles Bell’s theories on the anatomy of the brain were fertile ground for imaginative speculation and certainly part of the cultural context near the time of Frankenstein’s publication. The monstrosity of the man-made man nonetheless has its predecessor in the monstrosity of “woman-made man,” the deformed and monstrous child of the equally horrific and mysterious womb. By the end of the 17th century, scientific societies has begun to question “wonderful” and monstrous accounts, but though wonders “had lost their aura,”[ii] the monstrous continued to interest and enthrall (and sell newspapers and side-show tickets). This paper explores the medicalization of birth in the eighteenth century and its representation not only in scientific debate but also in sensationalized news accounts which—like early versions of the “penny dreadful,” circulated tales of terror. London papers, magazines and popular miscellanies published records of horrific births, even as the “orphaned” child and “monstrous” mother became a trope for Gothic fiction.

There are records of unusual, malformed or “monstrous” births in every culture, from early renderings on cave walls to the detailed astrological tables of the Chaldeans and the myths of the Greeks.[iii] The first formal collected account of these births is probably that of Julius Obsequens (fourth century), who listed the “miraculous” births from Caesar to his present.[iv] However, by the 15th century, miraculous and monstrous accounts had become a genre unto themselves; The Marvels of the East and the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle” (based on The Travels of Sir John Mandeville) collected supposed monsters from distant lands[v]—most of which were entirely fictitious, a few of which were likely based upon malformations and physical deformity.[vi]  However, arguably the most Image2famous of collected “monster” accounts is that of Ambroise Paré, surgeon and humanist of the mid-sixteenth century. His Des Monstres et prodigies (1573) was reprinted (as a full text) for more than 300 years, appearing in English translation as late as 1840 (and, in fact, again in 1982). More interestingly, the work appeared piecemeal throughout the eighteenth century, reprinted in miscellanies, magazines and popular accounts, the anomalous births passed off as current events.

The utility of Paré’s text comes, in part, from its structure. Using knowledge of books on natural history, Paré wrote a 519-page work on reproduction in two parts—the first dealt with surgical concerns, the second with monster births. Though early records also include miracle births under the “monstrous” (the Greek myths of Athena and Dionysus may be thought of in this fashion) the lexicon was ever-changing. The origins of the word “monster” are debatable; the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a Latin derivation, monstrum, “a warning or potent,” and Paré was clearly concerned with why the “natural” or normalized birth did not occur.[vii] The monster is, at best unnatural, at worst, a demonized creature and punishment from God: “Monsters are things that appear outside the course of Nature (and are usually signs of forthcoming misfortune).[viii] Marvels, too, are “against nature,” and may—along with monstrosity—reveal the “judgment of God, who permits fathers and mothers to produce such abominations from the disorder that they make in copulation, like brutish beasts, in which their appetite guides them.”[ix]

Interestingly, Paré’s sixteenth-century sensibility about the cause of monstrous birth was still present and highly debated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Joseph Duverney, professor of anatomy (1648-1730), considered monstrosity a problem of divine origin—and divine wrath. Physician Nicholas Lemery (1645-1715), by contrast, believed in accidental origins and Jacques Winslow (1669-1760) suggested “accidental causes could mask metaphysical [that is, divine] forces.”[x] Other major thinkers of the period—from Nicolas Malebranche to Denis Diderot—returned to this question in philosophical works. Malebranche (member of the Académie Royale des Sciences) published Tractatus de inquisitione veritatis in 1753. The text, which was translated into English and reprinted throughout the 18th century, was critical to popularizing the idea that mother imagination could cause birth defects—a devastating assumption also present in Paré, who claimed “monsters should not live among us,” as they could imprint upon the “fruit” of pregnant women because of the “ideas which might remain in their imaginative faulty, over the form of so monstrous a creature.”[xi] Two devastating consequences arise from this philosophy. The first is the estrangement and banishment of the malformed individual (and Paré includes among these those who have been marred by accident or illness as well). Such points continue to be made into the eighteenth century; a letter published in The Political State, February 1731, suggests the banishment of beggars, who must surely affect the developing fetus—and delicate feelings—of pregnant women.[xii] The second consequence, however, is of longer standing: that is, the culpability of mothers in the malformation of their children (which I will return to in the second half of this paper). Strangely escaping comment in this teratology is the fact that monsters, by virtue of their monstrosity alone, beget monsters. Enlightenment medicine did much to elucidate the complexities of generation and birth, particularly as to anatomy, but it did little to dispel the lingering horror of the monster birth—or to curb its enthusiastic reception among a reading public curious for marvels.

Statistics for actual birth in the eighteenth century do exist, and a number of them have been collected by Ruth Perry for her 1982 “Veil of Chastity.” Her point is to reveal the dangers of pregnancy and birth to the mother—it was “ten times as dangerous as venereal disease” (in an era where that is no small matter).[xiii] Perry also reports on a number of “monster” birth cases, from the famous Mary Tofts case, who feigned giving birth to rabbits, to one about a dead infant being half-consumed by live snakes. The latter of these was printed in The Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer on October 20th, 1722.[xiv] However, it is in fact a re-telling (with embellishment) from Paré’s Monsters and Marvels. In Paré’s account, the child “had a live snake attached to its back, who was gnawing on this little dead creature.”[xv] But Paré was citing Lycosthenes from 1494, and for all we know, Lycosthenes was reporting a marvel earlier still. The same may be said of the 365 children of Countess of Hennebrg, 1276; whether fabrication or the result of hydatidiform mole, the story of her miraculous brood was still being circulated well into later centuries—even appearing in broadsheet ballad form as “The Lamenting Lady.”[xvi] The eighteenth century account of the dead-baby-live-snakes improvises as well, not in form so much as character. The account in the British Gazatteer introduces new agents—a frightened female midwife, and a valiant husband who kills the snakes. These stories may speak of speak of “helplessness and fear in the face of women’s unpredictable and powerful reproductive capacities,”[xvii]  but they also reflect (as I have noted elsewhere) an increasing desire to control female fecundity, shake off the horror of childbirth, and make the entire birthing process a workman-like affair.[xviii] The unpredictable nature of the woman in labor and the mysteries of the womb led medical professionals to develop increasingly complex “birthing” phantoms or dolls on which to practice and teach delivery.

In any case, these stories of monster births are perhaps most marvelous for their ability to fire the imagination of successive generations of readers—each adding to it that which was appropriate to their particular historical moment.


[i] From a letter to the editor. Coxe, John Redman. The Philadelphia medical museum, Volume 6. (Philadelphia, 1809), 145.

[ii] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground for Scientific and Philosophical Debates,” A Telling of Wonders, Exhibit of the New York Academic of Medicine Rare Book Room. Jul 7, 2012. < http://www.nyam.org/library/rare-book-room/exhibits/telling-of-wonders/ter9.html.>

[iii] Speert, Harold. Obstetrics and Gynecology: A History and Iconography, 3rd Ed. (New York: Parthenon Publishing Ltd.), 361-362.

[iv] Ibid., 362.

[v] Ibid, 374.

[vi] The lengthy history of such accounts has been traced by Jean Céard’s La Nature et les prodiges and Stephen Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History

[vii] Pallister, Janis, introduction to On Monsters and Marvels, by Ambroise Paré (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), xxvii.

[viii] Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Ed. Janis Pallister. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), 3.

[ix] Ibid., 3, 5.

[x] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground”

[xi] Paré, 9.

[xii] “A Further Account of Advises from Foreign Parts.” The Political State, Vol 41. (London: Jan-June, 1731), 161.

[xiii] Perry, Ruth. “The Veil of Chastity.” Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 147.

[xiv] As cited by Perry.

[xv] Paré, 58.

[xvi] Speert, 393-394

[xvii] Qtd. in Ibid.

[xviii] From my work, “Mechanical Habits and Female Machines” NP. To appear in Feminist Formations, spring 2013.

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