Renaissance Marvels

Loch Ness Monster, Abominable Snowman? The Renaissance has us beat. Monster manuals were on all of the sixteenth century's best seller lists.

Step right up, folks. You'll find them here: mermen, pig-faced kids, stirred with a healthy dose of women who give birth to cats. These stories were not wives' tales. They were told, and retold, by some of the most respected medical writers of the day.

But were they real? Did they exist? As a historian type, I find this to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. If seeing is believing, we may not always know what we are seeing. And if that's the case, we may not always know how to describe it--much less believe it.

My work in these teratology manuals lets me say one thing with confidence: these stories inhabited the collective unconscious. You'll often find the same illustration plates in different books, written by different authors. In the absence of first-hand knowledge, the best we can do is rely on our sources. And, again, these sources were coming from the Renaissance's top doctors.

Perhaps the X-Files Mulder has some early-modern precursors. They wanted, as they say, to believe.

(Image: Ambroise Pare, Les Oeuvres 1575. Wellcome Institute)

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