Early Modern Monstrosities: An Inside Joke

Lynn's research into early modern monstrosities evolved out of a semester-long translation project in the archives of the McGovern Historical Collections at the TMC Library. She worked primarily translating the medieval Latin anatomy texts of Thomas Bartholin, with the expert help of Dr. Claire Fanger, in Rice's Department of Religion.


In 1654, Thomas Bartholin published the first two hundred of what would eventually be six hundred cases studies of Rare Anatomical Histories (Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum). Throughout his life Bartholin travelled widely and corresponded heavily with networks of scholarly physicians, natural philosophers, and natural historians. However, his work differed from that of many of his peers by focusing entirely on anatomical oddities and monstrous beings, which seemingly had no place in the study of anatomy and the human body. However, Bartholin studies these prodigious examples to point out a flaw in the traditional method of acquisition of truth, which was marked by deductive reasoning over empirical evidence. Bartholin, through his case studies, shifts the spotlight to nature and her enigmas, and urges us to become interpreters of Mother Nature’s lusus naturae, her jokes. Bartholin writes about his cases studies in a unique way that combines both the playful nature of scientific inquiry in the early modern period, as well as the newfound ideas of inductive reasoning and truth by empiricism first put forth by Francis Bacon in the Novum organum scientiarum in 1620. In Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum, Bartholin’s case studies attempt to retain credibility despite exploring the incredible and unbelievable. What results is a kind of a back and forth banter with nature, much like two friends exchanging inside jokes. Just as an inside joke results of a connection, understanding, and time spent with a person, Bartholin shows his own understanding of nature and her ways not just by interpreting her quips, but also by replying wittily with his own, as if to make her laugh in return.

The physicians of the early modern period were exceptionally exclusive, rejecting anything that was associated with folk tradition or beliefs and opposing medical publications that did not emerge from within their own group or were not written in Latin.[fn]Laura Lunger Knoppers and Joan B. Landes, Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 128-129.[/fn] It’s likely they regarded Bartholin’s collection of aberrations as trivial, or even foolish. Bartholin addresses this elitist attitude in his introduction, saying “if only the teachings among the mortals can be as great as the examples in this work I would certainly mock this work,”[fn]Thomas Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum centuria I et II. (Ex typographia Adriani Vlacq, 1654).[/fn] essentially retorting that every one of his case studies is a phenomenon that cannot be easily explained by the existing principles and teachings. In this way Nature makes a laughing stock out of the respected physicians and natural scientists who are consumed by their theories, because as much as they postulate, they would not be able to explain the countless little tricks Nature so effortlessly plays. To dismiss the opportunity to study these great wonders in favor of pure theory is to in essence become the butt of Nature’s jokes. Paula Findlen captures the idea of the lusus naturae and their role in the scientific inquiry at the time when she calls them “a key to an efficacious reading of the book of nature”.[fn]Paula Findlen, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 293.[/fn] But Findlen goes a step further and talks about the implications of the the natural scientist’s response, something that has been discussed much less in scholarly literature. She names these responses “lusus scientiae”, or the jokes of knowledge, which “evidence man's ability to match nature's complexity with his own artifice”,[fn]Ibid.[/fn] or in other words, are the means through which man converses, banters with nature, countering her jokes with his own. This in many ways characterizes Bartholin’s work, especially seen in his writing about his monstrous case studies.

The field of medicine in the early modern period was inundated with inherited theories and ideas, many of which were still attributed to 2nd century Galen, who only was able to postulate about human anatomy through the dissection of animals. The widespread blind acceptance of Galenic concepts among natural scientists and physicians would eventually inspire inquisitive anatomists such as Andres Vesalius to prove or disprove them on the stage of the classroom. It is worthwhile to point out that in the early modern period, the lack of knowledge about accurate human anatomy was in part a result of the taboo surrounding the dissection of human bodies.[fn]Glenn Harcourt, “Andreas Vesalius and the Anatomy of Antique Sculpture,” Representations, no. 17 (Winter, 1987): 37.[/fn] Even most professors of anatomy had never themselves performed a human dissection. Vesalius was a rarity when it came to his skills and confidence in using a razor and knife on the human body.[fn]Ibid., 35-6[/fn] In one notable instance in the 16th century, Vesalius proves the existence of an asymmetrical vein during a public dissection, while arguing with another respected physician, Matthaeus Curtius. In an eyewitness account by Baladasar Heseler, Vesalius is recorded saying to Curtius “Now we want to look at this [vein] and we should in the meantime leave Galen, for I acknowledge that I have said, if it is permissible to say so, that here Galen is in the wrong…” to which Curtius replies “…we must not leave Galen, because he always well understood everything, and consequently, we also follow him.”[fn]T. Hugh Crawford, “Imaging the Human Body: Quasi Objects, Quasi Texts, and the Theater of Proof,” PMLA, no.1 (January, 1996): 68.[/fn] Curtius’ response is telling; it reveals the deep, inflexible roots which old (Galenic) philosophies held in medicine, that even when presented with evidence which contradicted, Curtius would deny its merit. In this way, Vesalius and Bartholin are similar because they both refuse to immediately accept what has been established before them,[fn]However, the opposition narrative between Vesalius and Galen has been somewhat overstated.[/fn] in favor of discovering truth for themselves through their own observations.

Thomas Bartholin, a Danish physician, descended from a large family of physicians who together contributed immensely to early modern medical science. Bartholin in particular had a significant legacy as a teacher and mentor. In fact one of his students, Niels Steensen, contributed significantly to anatomy by discovering that the heart was a muscle, much like other muscles in the body, and not, as Galenic tradition thought, the center of warmth.[fn]Alan Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth (New York: Dutton, 2003).[/fn] It is seems that Bartholin is at the forefront of a movement which began to poke holes in Galenic dogma. Bartholin, like Vesalius, also led several public dissections.[fn]Robert V. Hill, “The Contributions of the Bartholin Family to the Study and Practice of Clinical Anatomy,” Clinical Anatomy, no. 20 (2007): 114.[/fn] But moreover, Bartholin repeatedly rejected offers to join the esteemed faculties of philosophy and medicine in Copenhagen to instead pursue his own experiences,[fn]Ibid, 113.[/fn] including those of the monstrous cases he would come to write about. Bartholin preferred to travel and study in Leiden and Padua, which challenged traditional thinking such as the old Galenic ideas of medicine.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] This characteristically curious nature of Bartholin was generally unappreciated, and would become a theme in his life and work. One of his most vocal critics, the French anatomist Jean Riolan, a summarizes a common attitude toward Bartholin’s work when he says, in regards to Bartholin’s work on lymphatics, that “to know these vessels is unnecessary, to examine them is stupid, and it gives no help in practicing better medicine.’’[fn]Ian Herbert Porter, “Thomas Bartholin (1616-80) and Niels Steensen (1638-86) Master and Pupil,” Medical History 7, no. 2 (1963): 99-125.[/fn] Riolan was a loyal follower of Galenic tradition,[fn]Hill, “Contributions,” 114.[/fn] much like Matthaeus Curtius, and according to Riolan’s system of thought, increased knowledge of the lymphatic system had no practical use, and therefore was irrelevant. In contrast, today we know that the lymphatic system plays an integral part in maintaining one’s health. This sentiment that gathering information just for the sake of knowing is a useless endeavor indicates a pervasive complacency in regards to investigation and discovery, which Bartholin and the inductive method itself oppose by their very nature.

However, Bartholin was by no means the first to advocate that man should employ the power of observation to more fully understand the natural sciences. Up to this point, contributions to the body of scientific knowledge had relied heavily on deductive reasoning and syllogism, which tries to logically arrive at new truths by coming to a conclusion by using broad statements. As a result, theories or ideas arose. Francis Bacon introduces inductive reasoning in 1620 in his work the Novum organum scientiarum (The New Instrument of Science). Bacon writes Novum organum to inspire a change in the way man studies all natural sciences. However, the particular field of medical science and anatomy, which as we have seen was saturated with such logic and theory, seemed to lack and actively dispute the use of concrete evidence. Bacon shares Bartholin’s desire to know nature, as if by a personal connection, describing the relationship as “man is the servant and interpreter of nature.”[fn]Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (New York: P.F. Collier, 1902).[/fn] In this instance as well as others in Bacon’s writings, Bacon’s relationship with nature is shown to be a bit more tumultuous than the playful, reciprocal one that Bartholin engages in, but the sentiment is clear in both cases, that there is valuable knowledge to be gained from a companionship with Mother Nature. Bacon even sees the importance of the monstrous as Bartholin does, including in his Novum Organum that “a compilation, or particular natural history, must be made of all monsters and prodigious births of nature; of everything, in short, which is new rare and unusual in nature. This should be done with a rigorous selection, so as to be worthy of credit.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

It is possible that Bartholin’s book of monstrosities is a result of this shift in scientific reasoning. Bartholin says in the introduction to Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum that “the science of medicine has labored for a long time with the multitude of teachings, by which, those soaked and plunged in them forced through with more difficulty to truth. The use of examples in the presence of many has died out, they place the certain confidence of observations under slippery reasoning and lessons made in the brain. They are deceived, unless I am deceived, by the untrustworthy sight of knowledge, just as in the dreams of a sick person.”[fn]Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum.[/fn] Bartholin suggests that secluding oneself in a bubble of theory and uncritical acceptance of the conclusions drawn from syllogisms had made it much more difficult to discover the truth that can be found in the reality of nature and her strange creations. Nature it seems, through her unpredictable ways, cannot be understood through extrapolations of comfortable ideas, but demands to be observed with new awe at every new display of her prodigiousness. This lends itself easily to the inductive method, which essentially forces physicians and natural scientists like Bartholin to observe before they assume. Further, the inductive method is more conducive to the discovery of and grappling with profoundly strange phenomena, while the deductive method allows one to be complacent within a reassuring collection of knowledge - using only what one already knows to engage in limited exploration, and never being necessarily forced to try to understand something difficult such as the abnormal and prodigious.

Why does Bartholin choose to focus on the monstrous? Perhaps it is easier to explain using the previous metaphor of a friendship. Like two friends, each one must be sympathetic to the other and all of his/her quirks. As an intimate, the natural scientist must have ears to hear and eyes to see all of the strange phenomena, the somewhat disturbing dark sides of nature. The monstrous, though stemming from nature, still appears profoundly unnatural, as if nature is acting against itself. Ambroise Pare eloquently articulates this in the introduction of his book Des Monstres et Prodiges – “Monsters are things that appear beyond the course of nature… things that happen entirely against nature.”[fn]Ambroise Pare, Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573).[/fn] But to deny that most peculiar part of nature the attention and appreciation it’s worthy of, as many physicians and scientists did, is like denying the most unique parts of a friend which truly define who they are. We can best see how Bartholin regards nature and shares his lusus scientiae through his numerous detailed case studies. I will touch on two, the cases of a common stone discovered in the leg muscle of a cow and a creatures of legends – the mermaid/siren.

Just as the lack of accurate anatomical models and dissections were a result of the taboo associated with the dissection of human bodies, the previous notion of monsters as religious symbols or as entertainment in popular culture were an obstacle for Bartholin. It’s important to understand the attitude towards monstrosity at the times. During the early modern period monsters were just starting to lose their long held interpretations as portents or indications of God’s displeasure and beginning to be seen as the exemplification of Nature’s fertility and creativity, this making her a separate entity from God, and one with a personality at that.[fn]Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998). [/fn] Also, up to this point monsters were a heavily entangled in pop culture through literature such as wonder books, and in public fairs.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Bartholin seems to try distance himself from this in his case studies. Bartholin relies both on ethos and visual and physical evidence to do this. Bartholin references the integrity of the source and witnesses to every story; often even providing physical evidence such as illustrations or mentioning a museum which houses some souvenir of the monstrosity which one can visit.

Bartholin’s case study of the siren was definitely among his most interesting. At the time it was written, the sea was associated with extreme fecundity, and was saturated with Nature’s jokes, because much of what lied within defied categorization.[fn]Findlen, “Jokes of Nature,” 301-302. [/fn] Bartholin suggests that all earthly creatures find their matching counterparts in the sea – “It is certain that the fish in the ocean find terrestrial animals repeating a certain appearance. There is a sea fox, wolf, calf, dog, horse, etc. Why will we deny a human copy with the sea creatures?”[fn]Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum[/fn] In fact, the title of the case study was Sirenis seu marini hominis anatome – “Anatomy of the Siren or Marine Human”. When talking about the marine human, Bartholin seems hyperaware of the legends and fables surrounding mermaids and sirens, and does his best to address these objectively. He begins his introduction of the siren thus: “There exist various relatings about Sirens in the records of the ancients. Those for the most part false, a part of them true. It is not far from fables that they are said to imitate human voices. But I am unwilling to doubt that beasts with a human form have been discovered in the sea. I refuse to plagiarize the art of the ancients. There is plenty about Sirens.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Bartholin immediately marks his own story as different than traditional fables and legends. He provides a very detailed and objective description of the marine human, perhaps to further establish his credibility and believability. “There is a corresponding hand with five fingers” he writes, “just as our hand, and just so with as many division of joints, as many as ours, there remains a unique part which all the bones of the fingers are more wide and compressed, a membrane connects the fingers reciprocally, just as in those equipped to fly; so that they might move forward as a goose or a duck which, with a foot having unfolded itself in the water moves forward. The end of the two middle fingers is wider, the end of the external fingers is more acute. The rod of the elbow is greatly incomplete on account of the fitness of swimming, barely four fingers long from side to side. And the conducting of the shoulder is not very large. The long ribs are quite thick, overcoming common human ones by almost three parts.”[fn]Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum[/fn]

Upon reading Bartholin’s case study about the siren, I quickly find instances of Bartholin’s lusus scientiae, which were previously mentioned as a means for the scientist to show his mastery of the knowledge gained, and simultaneous bantering with nature. For example, in the case study about Sirens, he brings up an account from “the father of the society of Jesus, returning to Rome from India,… [who] saw a sea born man adorned with the head-dress of a bishop, born in captivity, distressed in the nearest corner with a sad face, truly disheartened and set free and returned to the sea, with an inclination of his body seemed to give thanks to those deserving it from him for his restored liberty before he plunges himself into the water.”[fn]Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum[/fn] This is highly reminiscent of the sea monster resembling a bishop dressed in pontifical garb in Ambroise Pare’s On Monsters and Marvels¸ which was a subtle jab at the “excesses of Catholic wealth.”[fn]Knoppers and Landes, Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities, 132-133.[/fn] Bartholin manages to dodge responsibility for his own slightly distasteful joke by reporting that the story was related by a Jesuit priest, making it both more reliable and more ironically humorous.

In another case study, Bartholin describes what appears to be a stone, lodged in the leg muscle of a cow. When discussing its origin, he uses humor to ease the readers into a thought process similar to inductive reasoning. Bartholin says, “I, like the most ignorant of people, do not have a clue how [the rock] pervaded the interior of the muscle. Can it be that the cow, having fallen around a shore, forced rocks into its buttock?” He puts himself on the same level as the reader, calling himself ignorant and offering such a silly and humorous suggestion as to how the rock pervaded the interior muscle. He inspires the reader to think of an explanation to this question instead of ignoring it. He does make one thing clear though – that its explanation must be a logical one, not like “other superstitious men [who] turned the unaccustomed thing into an omen. [Neither] by deceit nor by any trick had the rocks been sewn up in the flesh.”[fn]Bartholin, Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum[/fn]

Bartholin consistently gives anyone who has doubt in his case studies opportunities to convince themselves, using the same visual or physical evidence he did. In the case of the siren, he provides the drawings of the siren and says “so that I might not seem to impose on the reader, both hand and rib are found in my Museum, which I owe to the kindness of honored Latius.  And we are adding a figure of both, with a picture of that very Siren both upright and swimming, in order to put to rest the doubt of all.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] In the case of the stone, he mentions it can be found in the Museum Wormianum, the Museum of Ole Worm. The Museum Wormianum catalogued many things, but most interesting was the Cabinet of Wonders and Curiosities. Ole Worm, a Danish physician also recognizes these wonders as nature’s jokes, writing in the catalog of his museum “Nature has joked (lusit) uncommonly in all the outward appearances of natural things."[fn]Findlen, "Jokes of Nature," 292[/fn]

There remains a possibility, however, that Bartholin suggests readers go see the physical evidence in museums fully knowing these pieces of evidence could be false, but that therein lies another facet of the trick. The exhibitions allow people to discern for themselves whether supposed proof is legitimate, a piece of nature’s banter, or to be fooled by something false, thereby becoming a joke themselves. Ironically, in Bartholin’s most acclaimed work, De unicornu observationes novae, Bartholin falls into his own trap. He mistakenly defends the the tusk of a walrus as being the horn of a unicorn, which was believed by many natural scientists at the time to not only exist, but also have healing properties.[fn]Porter, "Master and Pupil," 99-215.[/fn] Therein lies the only risk that one must accept when bantering with nature – the risk of looking foolish. Clearly, to Bartholin, it is not a risk at all but a privilege; it is a privilege to have the opportunity to be wrong, rather than to not attempt to understand Nature at all.