Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Monsters & Marvels: How Do We Interpret the "Preternatural"?

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Monsters & Marvels: How Do We Interpret the "Preternatural"?

Article excerpt

Four-leafed clovers are traditional emblems of good luck. Twoheaded sheep, five-legged frogs, or persons with six-fingered hands, by contrast, are more likely to be considered repugnant monsters, or "freaks of nature." Such alienation was not always the case. In sixteenth century Europe, such "monsters," like the four-leafed clover today, mostly elicited wonder and respect. People were fascinated with natural phenomena just beyond the edge of the familiar. Indeed, their emotional response--at that juncture in history--helped foster the emergence of modern science. Understanding that perspective, one might well probe another sacred bovine: That emotions can only contaminate science with values. Indeed, the potential of "monsters" to evoke wonder may, even today, help us motivate students.


Consider the case of Petrus Gonsalus, born in 1556 (Figure 1)(Hertel, 2001). As one might guess from his portrait, Gonsalus (or Gonzales, or Gonsalvus) became renowned for his exceptional hairiness. He was a "monster": someone--like dwarves, giants, or conjoined twins--with a body form conspicuously outside the ordinary. But, as his courtly robe might equally indicate, Gonsalus was also special.


Gonsalus was born on Tenerife, a small island off the west coast of Africa. But he found a home in the court of King Henry II. Once there, he became educated. "Like a second mother France nourished me from boyhood to manhood," he recollected, "and taught me to give up my wild manners, and the liberal arts, and to speak Latin" (Hertel, 2001, p. 9). Gonsalus's journey from the periphery of civilization to a center of power occurred because he could evoke a sense of wonder. Eventually, he moved to other courts across Europe. Wonder was widely esteemed.

For us, Gonsalus may be emblematic of an era when wonder flourished. In earlier centuries monsters were typically viewed as divine portents, or prodigies. Not that they were miracles. The course of nature seemed wide enough to include them. Still, why had the customs of nature been suspended at that particular time and place? What purpose or intent did monsters signify? Why would this child, here, now, have such an inflated (hydrocephalic) head? Monsters thus once evoked fear or awe. The emotion reflected their uncertain meaning more than their strangeness of form.

By the 1500s, however, nature (still viewed as God's realm) seemed less capricious. Confidence in nature's consistency developed, although nature did not yet seem quite lawlike. The supernatural certainly still seemed possible: A divine power could suspend the natural order at any time. Monsters like Gonsalus were rare, and surely anomalous. Yet they seemed products of natural causes. That belief opened a new zone between the known and the unknowable. Historians Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (2001) have dubbed such phenomena the preternatural, or "beyond the natural." The preternatural world, "suspended between the mundane and the miraculous" (p. 14), was emotionally charged. It was a domain of wonder and marvel.

What did Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s marvel at? Magnetic attraction: How did it reach across empty space? The reputed power of the amethyst to repel hail and locusts. Invisible writing that magically reappeared when heated. Liquid phosphor in the sea near Cadiz. Gems emitting light. "Fool's paradises" of glass creating many colors from sunlight. Colored lights flickering in the northern sky. Healing a wound by bandaging the weapon (if one should believe that). Changing metals from one to another. An armor-plated cow-like beast with a huge horn on its nose. A sea-boar, with tusks. A brainless child born in Montpelier. A child with a tail of a mammal. A woman with four breasts. Here was wonder indeed (Della Porta, 1658; Daston & Park, 2001; Smith & Findlen, 2002). Monsters, in particular, reflected the intriguing tension at the edge of the natural: So close to human form, yet not. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.