"Among all things that can be contemplated under the concavity of the heavens, nothing is seen that arouses the human spirit more, that ravishes the senses more, that horrifies more, that provokes more terror or admiration to a greater extent among creatures than the monsters, prodigies, and abominations through which we see the work of nature inverted, mutilated, and truncated.
This remark by Pierre Boaistuau can be found at the beginning of his Histoires Prodigieuses, a work published in 1561, in other words during a period of public calamities. Prodigies and monsters were regarded in the past as presages and, most often, as such, as birds of ill omen. Boaistuau had the merit of devoting his book to monsters without worrying about augury, and of recognizing to what extent men are eager for stupefaction."
The foregoing words open an short essay by Georges Bataille, published in 1930 in Documents, the dissident Surrealist journal which inspired this blog.
The images which accompany this post are from Boaistuau's book; more can be found here, at the Wellcome Collection.
I found more information about Boaistuau's book in Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park's 1998 book 'Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750'. There I read:
"Perhaps the clearest index of the sensitivity of the literature of monsters to external political and religious circumstances was the much reprinted six-volume French series of Histoires prodigieuses. Although the first two volumes, by Pierre Boaistuau (1560) and Claude Tesserant (1567), linked monsters and other prodigies to divine punishment, they suggested other, less ominous interpretations as well. According to Boaistuau, the main cause of monstrous births was divine judgment, swift and terrible, visited upon the sexually incontinent or bestial as a visible sign of "the horror of their sin". Yet he mentioned in the next breath the natural causes of the maternal imagination, excess of deficiency of seed, and indisposition of the uterus. Thus a child with four arms and legs, born on the day the Genoan and Venetian forces made peace, was at once the divine sign of brotherly reconciliation and the result of a narrow womb.
Tesserant thought monsters born in 1487 in Padua and Venice might have been the fearful presages of the misfortunes soon to be visited upon Italy, but he remarked concerning conjoined twins born near Heidelberg in 1486 ('very wondrous, for the rarity of the example') that no misfortunes and indeed 'almost nothing remarkable' had happened in Germany during that year. The Histoires prodigieuses' third, fourth, and fifth volumes, on the other hand, appeared between 1575 and 1582, at the height of the French wars of religion; they insisted unequivocally that all monsters were prodigies, sent directly by God to admonish Christians to 'repentance and penitence.' In contrast, the anonymous author of the sixth volume, published in 1594, during a lull in the hostilities, worried that earlier volumes might have bored their audience and promised to 'give more pleasure to readers for the most part curious about stories of wondrous things.' Although he indicated that the years between 1567 and 1573 had been particularly fertile in monsters, because of God's righteous indignation against Protestant heretics who had risen up against the true faith, he construed the word 'prodigious' in his title to mean not only portents but also all things that are 'not ordinary and ... have caused great wonder [grande admiration].
Thus, in addition to signaling the sensitivity of the horror complex to political and religious circumstances, the volumes of the Histoires Prodigieuses indicate that monsters could excite pleasure as well."