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The aim of this session is to gain some insight into early modern 'cosmologies'. The term cosmology here implies not the modern sense of scientific study of the universe, but the idea of a broad outlook, understanding or mentality, and specifically an understanding of the connections between broad patterns of religious or philosophical meaning and tangible aspects of every day experience. This (very large!) topic will be approached through a detailed look at the early modern fascination with 'monstrous births' - infants born with physical abnormalities of various kinds (and you should try to investigate what the word 'monstrous' actually means in this context).


The Cosmos and the Human Body: The Case of Monstrous Births

In preparation for the session, visit the database Early English Books Online (EEBO), and use the search function to locate and read these two anonymous single-page 'broadsheets' from Elizabethan England:

The true reporte of the forme and shape of a monstrous childe, borne at Muche Horkesleye a village three myles from Colchester, in the countye of Essex (London, 1562)

The forme and shape of a monstrous child, borne at Maydstone in Kent (London, 1568)

It is possible to download these as well as read online, and in both cases you will be able to see the original broadsheet (with accompanying picture) as well as a transcription of the text. The spelling of this is not modernised, so keep a note of anything you don't understand. We will look at the sources together in the seminar, and think about the following questions:

  • What kind of sources are these, and who are they aimed at?
  • What do these tracts tell us about early modern conceptions of women’s bodies?
  • How do the tracts help us reflect on how early modern men and women conceptualised the relationship between the natural and the supernatural?
  • Compare the tracts with the following extracts from a 'learned' treatise on childbirth that also touches on the relationship between the natural and supernatural: are there common themes or shared conceptions at work?


James MacMath, M.D., A Treatise of the Diseases of Women with Child, and in Child-Bed (London, 1694), (extracts from pp.13-28)

The Infant’s Formation

God only knows who Created all things in the beginning, first and alone; whose marvellous Skill in this Curious Cut of the Infant … [that] all joyntly grows together into a compleat Child, an entire perfect System of the whole … God alone its Creator, by which the Motions of the Corporeal Soul, are thenceforth determined, ruled and tempered: And all the Constitutions, Concoctions and Elaborations of the Body, fixed as by Gods own Hand, and doing...

Monstruous Conceptions

Various Examples of which are found with Physitians, Writers of Observations, also with Historians. Among these comes Natures Transgressions, or By-works, which are either Monsters in sex, as Hermophradites: Or in Conformation … having the Face of a Dog, Ape, Swine; or ill set Parts, as when the Eyes are in the middle front, the Ears behind, the Nostrils on the side: and in Number Redundant, as double Bodies, Hands, Arms, Feet, Fingers, 6, 7… Or then Deficient, wanting Arms, Fingers, Feet, Nose, Tongue, Ears, or other Members: Yea, a Marvel… Theologues hold them remarkable Instances of Divine Vengance, or Manifestations of the Works of God …

The Embryo receives the aliment of its Monstrosity from the Ineptitude or Excess Inordination of the Animal Spirits: and their inusual Emotions and Determinations, from the Mothers strong Imaginations (which works wonders in them, not only at the moment of Conception, but after when big, yea not long before the Labour) the Impressive force is made highly conspicuous, marvelously altering the Infant (now already formed) and marking upon it, (as it were Wax) things exactly represented in the Brain, and impressed upon the Animal Spirits, and Arterious Blood, and therewith convoyed to the Womb and directed on in the Circulation toward this, or that particular part … which being tender and soft, easily receives. This should make Women wary of entertaining, or musing more deeply, such Imaginations, or fixedly beholding ugly Pictures, Images, Monstrous or Frightful things.



Lotz-Heumann U., ‘The Natural and Supernatural’, in U. Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Protestant Reformations (2016). [ebook]

Clark, Stuart, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) – Chp 10 ‘Witchcraft and Science’ and Chp 11 ‘The Devil in Nature’.

Julie Crawford, Marvellous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England (2005), introduction (on google books) and chapter 2 (on Aspire).

Harrison, Peter, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), chapter 5: ‘The Purpose of Nature’. [ebook]

Ulinka Rublack, “Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany”, Past and Present (1996), 84-110.



Childbirth and Monstrous Births

A Bates, Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births in Early Modern Europe (2005), chapters 2 and 3.

Julie Crawford, Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England (2005), introduction and chapter 2.

Ulinka Rublack, “Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany”, Past and Present (1996), 84-110.

The Early Modern Body:

Siraisi, Nancy E., Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: an Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago, 1990), Chapter 4: pp. 78-115. [ebook]

Park, Katharine, ‘The Organic Soul’, in Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (eds.), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 464-484. [ebook]

Park, Katharine, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (2010) [ebook]

Clark, Stuart “Demons and Disease: the Disenchantment of the Sick (1500-1700),” in Illness and Healing Alternatives in Western Europe, ed. Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, Hilary Marland and Hans De Waardt (London: Routledge, 1997), 38-59 [ebook]

Caciola, Nancy, ‘Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, 2 (2000): 268-306.

Mann, Sophie, ‘A Double Care: Prayer as Therapy in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine,