Du Plessis’s manuscript points us towards two uncertain boundaries of his age, between human and beast, and between nature and monstrosity. It hints at the difficulty of establishing the immediate causes and deeper significances of monsters. There was no consensus on whether beings like headless infants were one of nature’s errors, a sign of their mother’s sin, portents of communal doom or – in regions outside Europe – members of a monstrous people. Thus the interpretation of monsters was a contested enterprise. The history of early modern monsters is, in essence, a story of competing interpretations pushed by different groups for the same phenomena.
In this paper I probe Du Plessis’s manuscript and the writings of his contemporaries (including Sir Hans Sloane and Samuel Pepys) in order to uncover the principles by which they organized, selected and analysed monsters. In so doing, I hope to better understand how and why the boundaries between humanity, monstrosity and the natural world became increasingly blurred in the early modern imagination.
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