From Superstition to Scientific Reasoning
The seventeenth century was a time of great advancement for science, but it also presented a curious juxtaposition between superstition and science. A part of Europe’s Early Modern period and the birth of the Baroque cultural movement, the 1600s also encompassed the early years of the Scientific Revolution, when superstition and religion gave way to scientific reasoning. Furthermore, the Enlightenment, which attempted to replace ideas based on faith or tradition with scientific method, began to take hold later in the century.
|Monsters! Physica Curiosa.|
By the end of the 17th century, electricity, the telescope and microscope, calculus, universal gravitation, Newton’s Laws of Motion, air pressure and calculating machines had entered the scene. And yet, as with all great shifts in cultural thinking, the transition from superstition to science was not instantaneous. Many of the era’s great thinkers attempted to reconcile previous beliefs with new discoveries. Case in point: Monsters.
Monsters and the 16th and 17th Centuries
Many of the publications of the 17th century, while beginning to embrace scientific method and conclusions based on experiments, still also accepted fantastical explanations for marvelous occurrences. Books depicting monsters were extremely popular, and many recycled the same illustrations repeatedly, introducing them to new generations (case in point: Gessner hydra, 1560; Aldrovandi hydra, 1640; Joannes Jonstonus hydra, 1657). Furthermore, global exploration had begun on an unprecedented scale, and those that traveled published accounts of biodiversity from regions they visited. However, they recorded not only the creatures they saw with their own eyes, but also those described by locals – many of which were beings of myth and folklore. While fantastic to us today, for most during this time, there was no division between magic and reality – they simply coincided. Thus, these fabulous beasts could be a reality. Many were based on briefly-glimpsed real creatures given religious or superstitious twists. What’s more, many “monsters” heralded during the time were actually humans or animals with deformities.
For example, Ambroise Paré, a surgeon of the 1500s, authored “the” monster book of the Renaissance: Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573). Translating to “Monsters and Marvels,” the work depicted malformed humans and animal-human hybrids. Conjoined twins were a popular example of human “monsters.” For instance, Paré illustrates a pair of 15th century female pygopagus conjoined twins that were exhibited in Italian cities for curious spectators.
|Conjoined Twins. Physica Curiosa.|
Gaspar Schott: Jesuit, Mathematician, Natural Historian, Monster Authority
An exceptional example of the “monsters” proliferated during the 17th century can be found in Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa. Schott (1608-1666), a German scientist and Jesuit, specialized in the fields of physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy. He wrote extensively on the mechanical developments of his time, and produced the first published account on Otto von Guericke’s experiments on vacuums. His most famous works include Magia Universalis, Technica Curiosa, and Physica Curiosa – essentially encyclopedias magical, mechanical, and natural history knowledge. Schott was a great compiler, and relied on an extensive library for his own research. Most of Schott’s publications are aggregations of the writings and research existing on various topics.
|Centaur and Satyrs, Physica Curiosa.|
Physica Curiosa is an encyclopedia of the natural sciences of the age. In keeping with Schott’s character, it compiles many of the illustrations and literature previously published. As with many natural history publications of the era, it depicted fantastical creatures alongside real ones. Divided into twelve books, the first six books (digitized by the Smithsonian Libraries) are devoted to “miraculous” subjects, including Demons and Angels, spectres, demonic possessions, human and beastly monsters, and portents. The last six books deal with the “marvels” of nature – real creatures from exotic locales, such as elephants and rhinos.
Physica Curiosa‘s target audience was other scholars, educators, and the rich nobility of the time, as this was the demographic that could afford the publication. Though books were beginning to be more prolifically published in relation to the previous century, they were still made by hand and very expensive. The illustrations in this work are copper engravings, which were very practical for scientific illustration as they allowed for much more detail than wood blocks. A single printing of 500-1,000 copies concluded the run of this publication.
|Monk Fish (Upper Left), Bishop Fish (Lower Right), Sea Devils (Upper Left, Lower Right).|
Physica Curiosa begins with a discussion of diabolical magic – that of demons. In his publication Magia Universalis, Schott wrote that magic was once an honorific practice, but that legitimate magic was corrupted after the flood. The remaining natural magic was likely the result of a pact with a demon and was prohibited. He also asserts that demons are the cause of many of the world’s “monsters.”
Physica Curiosa not only depicts deformed humans as monsters, but also Centaurs, Satyrs, Monk and Bishop Fish, and Sea Devils, to name a few. Human deformities as monsters has been discussed at length, but many other creatures presented by Schott exemplify the practice of misrepresenting real creatures, or imposing religious elements on natural entities. For example, the monk and bishop fish, which were popular beings illustrated throughout the 16th-17th centuries, demonstrate how religious tensions resulted in the association of clerical figures with monsters. Nevertheless, many authors still purported these creatures to be real. In the late 1600s, Johann Zahn wrote that the bishop fish he illustrated in Specula Physico-Mathematico-Historica was fished out of the Baltic Sea in 1531.
The Sea Devil was also a popular monster, which Conrad Gessner, in the 16th century, recorded as having been captured in both Norway and Rome. Historians today postulate that this creature was actually based on the monk seal. Seals were extremely disliked by both fisherman and farmers as nuisances. Aristotle recorded accounts of seals raiding orchards, which Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi maintained.
While Schott clearly saw a distinction himself between fantastical creatures and those found in the natural world (as evidenced by the division within his book), he still asserts some incredible beliefs associated with real animals. For instance, he claims that “both fish and bird are made from water,” barnacle geese are born from rotting wood, and that angels may have carried men and animals to the New World and distant islands. This demonstrates the tie between magic and science that still permeated Baroque Europe.
Impact on Science
|Mermaids, Demons and Monsters, oh my!|
It may seem, with extensive conversations about diabolical magic, demons, and monk fish, that Physica Curiosa is little more than a perpetuation of the superstition that characterized the Dark Ages. But believe it or not, Physica Curiosa played an important part in the development of scientific reasoning. For instance, while it still purports some “mystical” explanations for certain miraculous events, Schott also condemns a great deal of the accepted superstitions of the time. For instance, he discredits the use of divining rods to locate treasure, rejects the notion that a corpse bleeds in the presence of its murderer, and condemns drinking the blood of one’s beloved in order to cure infatuation. Indeed, within Physica Curiosa, Schott writes regarding many accepted beliefs, “I do not approve of all, because I know that some are doubtful, if not false; others superstitious; others perhaps even manifestly false.” Schott also acknowledges that many unexplained phenomena may indeed be scientifically true when he “implores the reader not to be so inhuman as to refuse to believe anything unless he sees it with his own eyes, [as] many things which antiquity thought fabulous are now proved true by frequent experiment.”
Thus, Physica Curiosa represented a critical step along the journey of accepting science over superstition. Furthermore, this work and the others of its time, by aggregating the fanciful beliefs of the era in a single publication, presented an excellent body of work against which those of the Enlightenment could react. By comprehensively recording what was accepted as truth during the time, the authors made it easier for future scholars to pinpoint and address widespread, unscientific doctrine.
In conclusion, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a fascinating time in history, as we watch science battle superstition, and see scholars like Schott struggle to make sense of their cultures and their reasoning. Monsters were a inherent part in this discovery process. Deciphering truth from myth, and exploring medical and natural explanations for the unexplained, is what science is all about.
Physica Curiosa Illustrations
You can see more books about the Curious and the Bizarre in BHL. See a collection of fascinating “monster” illustrations in Flickr. See illustrations from the first six parts of Physica Curiosa in Flickr.
Special thanks to Lilla Vekerdy, Head of Special Collections, Smithsonian Libraries, for her consultation on this post. The Smithsonian Libraries’ collection contains 16 books by Schott. The version of Physica Curiosa digitized for BHL is from the Smithsonian Libraries’ collection.
- Gillispie, CC. “Schott, Gaspar.” Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.
- Thorndike, L. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1923. 596-608.
- Michon, Scott. “Sea Monsters.” Strange Science, 16 May 2013. 17 May 2013. http://www.strangescience.net