Des monstres: images et savoirs

The Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine in Paris presents a “livre-exposition” on monsters in the Renaissance. The text was written by, and the images selected by, Annie Bitbol-Hespériès. From the introduction:
Le livre-expositionThe book-exhibition “Monsters in the Renaissance and the Classical Age” starts from three observations: a profusion of images of monsters beginning in the second half of the 16th century; in particular the great variety of engravings, often ambiguous; and the diversity of authors who treat monsters. The period considered is indeed the time of monsters. The word enjoyed its greatest extension with Ambrose Paré; moreover, various sources first converged, and competing systems of knowledge later confronted one another, in the study of monsters. Les Monstres à la Renaissance et à l’âge classique part de trois constats : d’abord une profusion d’images de monstres à partir de la seconde moitié du seizième siècle, ensuite une grande variété de gravures, souvent ambiguës, enfin la diversité des auteurs qui traitent des monstres. La période retenue est vraiment le temps des monstres, puisque le mot connaît sa plus grande extension avec Ambroise Paré, et qu’autour des monstres convergent des sources variées, avant que ne s’affrontent des savoirs concurrents.
Monstrous births—individuals born with deformities—were a problem for both the old & the new science. In Aristotelian science, the existence of individuals visibly departing from the norm at which the generative power of each species aims required explanation: not only a “material” explanation that would show why in these instances nature falls short,
Source: Paré, Monstres et prodiges,
p. 1091 (BIUM)
but also a teleological explanation by which the præter- or contra-natural could be accommodated in a world planned and made by an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent deity.
For the proponents of the new science, monsters offered a pretext for arguments against Aristotelian finality, and an opportunity to exercise their ingenuity while offering mechanistic accounts of generation. Descriptions and illustrations of animals developing in the womb did not yet greatly constrain philosophical speculation. Only in the eighteenth century did natural philosophers begin to understand that monstrous births could be treated as “experiments” in generation—to realize that the abnormal could be made to yield information about the normal.
Monsters were not only objects of scientific study. Like other unusual events, they were portents. The birth of a monster must signify, must point to something else by way of some similarity or mark (see Céard and Daston & Park). Science itself no longer accords the status of knowledge to the interpretation of prodigies. But interpretation goes on regardless: AIDS was said to be “God’s wrath upon homosexuals”. One lesson that the study of cultural history teaches is that styles of thinking rarely vanish altogether: they migrate.
Added 22 Jan 2005: My original reference for the site was Carnet de Zénon (see “All Philosophy, Addendum 2”.
Bitbol-Hespériès, Annie. Le principe de vie chez Descartes. Vrin, 1990, « Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie ». 236 p. [ISBN: 2-7116-1034-9]
Céard, Jean. La nature et les prodiges. L’insolite au XVIe siècle en France. 2nd ed. Geneva: Droz, 1996. 560 p. (Orig. publ. 1977.) [ISBN: 2-600-00502-1]
Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the order of nature, 1150–1750. Zone Books, 2001. [ISBN: 0942299914]
Paré, Ambroise Ambroise Paré,
. Vingt cinquième livre traitant des monstres et prodiges, in Œuvres. Paris, G. Buon, 1585. Bitbol-Hespériès notes that “La première édition de ce traité est de 1573 avec pour titre Des monstres tant terrestres que marins. Dans les Œuvres Complètes, publiées en 1575, rééditées en 1579 et 1585, le titre devient celui de Monstres et prodiges”. hook hook

LinkJanuary 6, 2005 in History of Science