From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, European fascination with the “monstrous” grew and explanations of “monsters” evolved in response to the discovery of the Americas and increased knowledge of human and animal bodies. The bounds of nature were stretched to fit such seeming aberrations as gigantic sea serpents, a child born with the head of a frog, a colt with a human face, and bodies of indeterminate sex (“hermaphrodites” in early-modern terminology). What did it mean, then, to be a “monster” in early-modern Europe? From what sources did Europeans draw knowledge of monsters? Where was the line between the natural and the unnatural, wonder and abomination? In order to answer these questions, this presentation will examine sea and land creatures from foreign continents, the creation of misshapen beings through reproductive defects (the “maternal imagination”), and the perceptions of “hermaphrodites” as both naturally monstrous and socially deviant. In early-modern Europe, monsters not only represented disorders in nature and supernatural omens; they also prescribed boundaries for social and sexual behavior.
Dr. Joseph Bryan is an Assistant Professor of History at MSU Billings. He has been a faculty member at the university for seven years, teaching courses on the Enlightenment, the Atlantic World, and the Scientific Revolution. Dr. Bryan received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2016. His work focuses on eighteenth-century France and the Enlightenment, specifically the relationship between medical understandings of the human body and new conceptions of society.