The Monstrous Races in Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophia

Keywords: Monstrous Races, Monstrous Births, Margarita Philosophia, St. Augustine of Hippo, mark of Cain

The etymology of the word ‘monster’ is derived from the Latin monere, meaning to warn and were regarded to presage intending calamity (Gilmore, 2003, p. 9). During the Renaissance, monstrous births were considered warnings against sin towards the collective, as well as to the individual, as a sign of God’s wrath and as a result were commonly considered bad omens (Wilson, 1993, p. 36). Since antiquity, the monstrous races of the East were often conflated with monstrous births. As a result, monstrous races were similarly believed to also serve as portents. Isidorus, for example, listed monstrous races under the heading of De portentis (‘Portents’) (Isidorus, 2006, p. 244).

Representations of monstrous races and monstrous births have often been treated separately in scholarship and are said to result from very different cultural manifestations (Daston and Park, 1998, p. 34). While the monstrous races were believed to inhabit far distant lands in remote corners of the world and have been analysed from the context of race and foreignness, monstrous births were often treated as only occurring within European culture itself. As a result, they have been considered specifically regarding their role in the socio-economic instability in Germany as well as the Protestant Reformation from a religious standpoint. In this way, the similar role of monstrous races as portents has been neglected. Not only did they represent the primitive and barbarous nature of the foreign ‘Other’, they also reflected the real fear of human corruption. Physical deformity was long associated with sin, with human-animal hybrids reflecting the greatest perversion of God’s creation (Strickland, 2003, pp. 66, 65).

Unknown Artist, De Gemellis, monstris, & abortiuis foetibus in Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Basel, Heinrich Petri, Konrad Resch, 1535, fol. 830v,
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

In a procession of monstrous races, a woodcut depicts a Sciopod with one large foot to provide shelter from the sun, the one-eyed Cyclopes, the Blemmyae with no head but face in their torso, and the dog-headed cynocephali. In the middle stands a monstrous birth – a conjoined twin. With minimal shading, they represent simple ethnographic profiles with limited pictorial context beyond their physical otherness. The woodcut was published in three separate texts in the sixteenth century: Margarita Philosophia (‘Philosophical Pearl’) (1503) by Gregor Reisch (c.1467-1525), Cosmographia (‘Cosmologist’) (1544) by Sebastian Münster (1488-1552), and Heydenwelt (‘The Pagan World’) (1554) by Johann Herold (c.5000s). In its original publication in Reisch’s Margarita Philosophia, the book provided an authoritative source in the role of a textbook for university students built around the curriculum of the University of Freiburg, which included subjects such as alchemy and calculus (Cunningham and Kusukawa, 2010, p. xxi). The text was originally published in Latin, in the language of its intended scholarly audience (Bateman, 1983, p. 139).

The print of monstrous races is included in chapter 19, entitled ‘On monstrous and miraculous effects; from what things they can arise’. The text consists of a dialogue between student and teacher. The text does not serve to confirm the existence of monstrous races. However, if they did, they would have been the result of God’s will rather than by chance or an accident of nature. The discussion between the teacher and pupil is tied around the existence of monstrous births, illustrating that both monstrous races and monstrous births shared a common theological and philosophical question. The two discuss St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354- 430) views on the miraculous, as according to him, nothing can occur by chance, but rather is the result of God’s will (Reisch, 2010, pp. 47-8). The teacher describes such occurrences as portents and quotes Augustine’s De ciuitate Dei (‘The City of God’): ‘the will of so great a Creator is certainly the nature of every created thing. A portent, therefore, is an occurrence contrary not to nature, but to nature as we know it ‘ (Saint Augustine, 1871, p. 429). Therefore, the monster was derived from nature as a sign from God, which could be used to predict the future.

Whilst Augustine demonstrated doubt in the existence of monstrous races in The City of God, he stipulated that if there could be monstrous births then it should not be absurd to have monstrous races (Augustine, 1871, p. 118). The depiction of the conjoined twins together with the monstrous races highlights the relationship monstrous races had with monstrous births. The very fact they are discussed and visually portrayed alongside conjoined twins helped to embed these creatures into the consciousness of sixteenth-century Germans. This helped to blur the lines between very real monstrous births and mythical monstrous races. Although Margarita Philosophia illustrated doubt on the existence of monstrous races due to insufficient evidence, their inclusion as an illustration would have overshadowed the scepticism expressed with the enduring impression of these monstrous figures and emphasised their role as a portent.

The pupil in Margarita Philosophia goes on to question the existence of monstrous races, whether they are men and derived from Adam. The teacher does not confirm whether they exist and how they could come about but states that if they did, they must be the result of God’s plan as he could not be thought to have ‘erred’ (Reisch, 2010, pp. 48-9). The existence of monstrous races in sixteenth-century Europe called into question why God would create them, considering man believed they were created in the image of God (Genesis 1.26). The most common Christian explanation was that the monstrous races were descended from Cain (Strickland, 2003, p. 49). They were thus believed to have been cursed with the physical mark of Cain given by God for killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4.3-15) (Freedman, 2002, pp. 2-3). Cain was punished by being hidden from God’s presence and to wander the earth like a nomad ‘east of Eden’ (4.15-16). For this reason, they represented God’s punishment for sins on earth. As Cain was hidden from God’s presence, it associates the absence of faith in the god of the Bible with their physical monstrosity.


Saint Augustine, The City of God (c.426), volume 2, trans. Marcus Dods, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871.

John J. Bateman, ‘The Art of Rhetoric in Gregor Reisch’s “Margarita Philosophica” and Conrad Celtes’ “Epitome of the Two Rhetorics of Cicero,”’ Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 1983, pp. 137-154.

Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa, ‘Translators’ Introduction’ in Gregor Reisch, Natural Philosophy Epitomised: Books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch’s Philosophical Pearl (1503), ed. Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Paul Freedman, ‘The Medieval Other: The Middle Ages as Other’ in Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger (eds.), Marvels, Monsters and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 2002, pp. 1-27.

David D. Gilmore, Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and all Manner of Imaginary Terrors, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Isidorus, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c.615 B.C.-630s B.C.), ed. trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophia, Basel: Furter und Schott, 1508.

Gregor Reisch, Natural Philosophy Epitomised: Books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch’s Philosophical Pearl (1503), ed. Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Dudley Wilson, Signs and Portents: Monstrous Births form the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, London: Routledge, 1993.

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