Keywords: Konrad von Megenberg (or Conrad von Megenberg) Monstrous races in art, Plinian races, India, Das Buch der Natur
That all races, ethnicities, man and woman belong to the same species sounds like a truism. However, this idea of human universalism was a point of contention during the sixteenth century. The discussion surrounding non-European foreigners paralleled with the discussion on the mythological monstrous races. During the sixteenth century, the enduring interest in the portrayal of monstrous races was an expression of where externally located foreigners were positioned on the human-animal divide as Christendom struggled to conceive unfamiliar and exotic foreign out-groups within the same category as themselves. To be equated with ‘man,’ meant to live and to look European.
The earliest representation of monstrous races in German prints were in early Renaissance encyclopedias and chronicles, depicted as ethnographic portraits focusing on their wondrous figurations. The monstrous races are often described as ‘Plinian’ as Pliny wrote one of the earliest influential accounts of monstrous races in his compilation of earlier stories in Historia naturalis (‘Natural History’) (c.77A.D). The text was divided into eight books covering topics such as human beings, astrology, animals, plant life, gems, and metals.
Placing the monstrous races together made them a homogenous group of the exotic non-European Other instead of portraying them as a race. The creatures are ambiguous, removed from ethnographic and geographic context. We only know they are from India because of their written context, whose exact geographic location remained vague, at least prior to the sixteenth century (Friedman, 1981, p. 1). Knowledge of the wider world at this time was still largely made of myth. The ambiguity surrounding their distant location facilitated the plausibility of these abnormal creatures. As a result, their depiction was originally set against an ambiguous landscape.
In the final chapter ‘Von Den Wundermenschen’ (‘of the wondrous people’) in the printed editions of Megenberg’s original fourteenth-century Das Buch der Natur includes a hand-coloured woodcut of various monstrous races scattered across a winding path. The diverse standing figures are dispersed across the woodcut facing multiple directions, exhibiting no apparent unity among the figures as they face opposite directions from one another. Each figure possesses a differing characteristic from webbed feet or multiple arms as the sole representative of their ‘race.’ They are portrayed across the page like benign curiosities with neutral facial expressions and as mere outlines of their odd figures. In this way, these foreign wonders are depicted with limited visual context or subject narrative to indicate how they may have lived or behaved. The focus of these portraits is that they are in opposition to the West. They are based on a fictitious notion of otherness, juxtaposed against a woman dressed in European clothing in the top-centre of the print.
The monstrous races are depicted against a backdrop of rolling hills coloured green in the same way animals in the chapter on zoology were depicted in the same publication. In this way, the monstrous figures portrayed in Konrad von Megenberg’s Das Buch der Natur were fashioned in an objective ‘scientific’ way, comparable to other known species of animals, for an audience to more easily read the monstrosities as factual over mythological or allegory, thus providing more authority over the more popular wonder books.
Although the depiction of the naked monstrous races was partly due to exhibiting their peculiar, yet humanoid physique, nakedness was also a symbol of barbarity and sinfulness when read in combination with other motifs. For instance, the naked figures in Megenberg’s Das Buch der Natur were juxtaposed against a fully clothed woman drinking from a wondrous fountain. The woman’s modesty is underscored by her dress that covers her arm, shoulders, and chest, as well as her veil that covered her head that signified her decorum and morality of the time (Rublack, 2010, pp. 125, 126-27). Her dress has been coloured red as it has in several other editions of this publication, suggesting instruction had been given to the colourists. While colour can be difficult to interpret as its meaning is inconsistent and needs to be interpreted within a given context, the use of colour in this woodcut has an isolating effect. It has created greater distinction between the woman and the naked monstrous races. A negative reading can be discerned from the juxtaposition. Their contrasting state of undress emphasises their separation from the Christian, ‘civilised’ world – a sign of wildness, primitiveness and sexual immorality, despite their benign appearance (Friedman, 1981, pp. 31-2; Groesen, 2008, p. 199).
The belief in monstrous races posed a problem with the Christian idea of universalism, that all people were descended from Adam. This meant that Christian writers attempted to explain the belief in monstrous races within a Christian narrative. While some authors associated them more with animals and therefore as a separate species, others posed that they were manifestations of inherited or behavioural sin. Despite Megenberg’s description that the monstrous races were more akin to animals than man, he stated that he believed wondrous people were all descended from Adam (Megenberg, 1897, pp. 420, 421). By acknowledging that the monstrous races were descendant from Adam was to acknowledge them as human. However, some were deformed by body or mind because of the sins of Adam, while others were the creation of behavioural sin (Megenberg, 1897, p. 420). This theory was likely to avoid the suggestion that the monstrous races were born from another lineage (polygenesis), a theory which was heretical (Honour, 1975, p. 58).
In Megenberg’s Das Buch der Natur, the wonderous people were proceeded by a chapter on wonderous springs. The artist had conflated these two chapters in the woodcut. By doing this, the artist was conveying the message that the monstrous races were the product of behavioural sin. This is because the fountains appear to introduce a moralising allegory to the monstrous races. The chapter on wonderous springs in Megenberg’s book described several different fountains from around the world with different properties (Megenberg, 1897, pp. 415-7). This chapter described waters that had healing qualities, but also the ability to inflict bodily disfigurement. One of the fountains described had healing qualities to cure blindness, but would also punish thieves by blinding them. Therefore, God worked through nature to punish the wicked (Megenberg, 1897, p. 415). As the woman points to the monstrous races, this could indicate that they were the products of sin. The consequence of this representation is that human diversity could be further related to sinfulness. The print is also suggestive that since the monstrous races were punished with their physical manifestation, they could thereby be converted back. The woman drinking from a wondrous spring poses as the norm in conjunction to the monstrous.
Friedman, John Block, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Griffiths, Antony, The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550-1820, London: The British Museum, 2016
Groesen, Michiel van, Representations of The Overseas World in the de Bry Collection of Voyages (1590-1634), Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Honour, Hugh, The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present, New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
Megenberg, Konrad von, Das Buch der Natur, Augsburg: Johann Bälmer, 1475.
Megenberg, Konrad von, Das Buch der Natur: die erste Naturgeschichte in deutscher Sprache, ed. Hugo Schulz, Julius Abel: Greifswald, 1897.
Rublack, Ulinka, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.