Monsters Incorporated: Framing Anatomical Difference in Early Modern England

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Surekha Davies, Birkbeck College, University of London
James Paris du Plessis, onetime servant to the diarist Samuel Pepys, created an illustrated manuscript compendium of monsters entitled ‘A Short History of Human Prodigious & Monstrous Births of Dwarfs, Sleepers, Giants, Strong Men, Hermaphrodites, Numerous Births, and Extream Old Age’. These monsters, beings that Du Plessis had either witnessed or heard about between the 1660s and 1730s, ranged from a child with two heads born at Pithiviers, France at Du Plessis’s own family home – where, in his youth, he accidentally dug up the body; a Tartar with a horse’s head; a ‘wild and hairy Irishman’ and ‘a man with a monstrous goiter ... being a terrour to all big bellyed women that saw him’. ‘A spotted negro prince’ was sold in London and ‘show’d publickly at the age of 10 years’.

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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