Monstrous Births and their Uses in Sixteenth Century Germany

Keywords: Monstrous Births, Portent, Omen, German Reformation, Martin Luther, Monster of Cracow

Interest grew in monstrous births out of the printing press, where accounts of monstrous births were promptly reported and spread widely (Bates, 2005, p. 15). The prints also had a ready market that had already seen images of wonders such as monstrous races. Both the printing press and the climate of the time influenced the spread and interest in monstrous births during the sixteenth century. Monstrous births appeared to be ‘verified and documented’ in broadsheets and pamphlets, which provided evidence of God’s work. It was prints in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that were sold as the ‘purveyors of unmediated representations of nature.’ (Leitch, 2012, p. 3) Pamphlets of wonders were often labelled with the adjective ‘true’ and ‘truthful’ (Ewinkel, 1995, pp. 7-8l; Soergel, 2000, p. 296). Parents of their deformed infants sometimes placed them on display for the price of admission. Printed accounts of these displays were frequent during late Reformation Germany. Local officials and nobles also came to witness and record the monstrous births, which added to the veracity of their recorded accounts and held witness to their artistic rendering (Soergel, 2000, p. 298).

Historically, monstrous births have referred to babies born with significant abnormalities, including conjoined twins. During the Renaissance, they were considered warnings against sin towards the collective as well as the individual as a sign of God’s wrath and as a result were commonly considered bad omens (Wilson, 1993, p. 36). 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). The belief that monstrous births were divine signs dates back to antiquity with the writings by Aristotle and Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.) (Crawford, 2005, p. 11 note 36). ‘Etymology or origins’ by Isidorus, reveals that signs, omens, portents, and prodigies were all analogous with one another – to display and predict the future (Isidorus, 2006, pp. 243-4). It was the sixteenth century that expressed the increased desire to understand the future in the face of mounting uncertainty (Allen, 1941, p. 47). Popular wonder books illustrated with woodcuts of natural disasters and monstrous births demonstrated God’s displeasure through nature (Soergel, 2012, pp. 27-28).

In a print in Johann Wolf (1537-1600) Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum, (‘Memorable and Recondite Readings’) (1600) a standing figure of a boy covered in hair all over his face and body closely resembles the condition of hypertrichosis. It is otherwise known as ‘werewolf syndrome’, where the individual grows excessive hair over their face and body. The child was born to the cousin of Pope Martin the Fourth during the thirteenth century who was described as a baby bear with claws. As a result, the Pope was so ashamed that he ordered all images of bears to be destroyed in his home. The subsequent and following text from the description of the monstrous birth describes several other portents, in particular a large comet seen in the sky as well as the birth of the Antichrist. References to the birth of this baby bear can also be found in Hartmann Schedel‘s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). In this source the story of the monstrous birth was preceded by division that led Pope Martin to be run out of Rome by a popular uprising. This story not only preceded the account of the bear boy but also a description of a fish in the form of a lion that was caught, which cried and shouted like a human being. This was said to be a sign of dissension.

Artist Unknown, illustrated in Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium and reconditarum, Lauingen, 1600, Woodcut.

Although monstrous births had sometimes been considered positively, they became more apocalyptic in nature from the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Reformation reached a turning point (Spinks, 2009, p. 10). Monstrous births during the German Reformation were predominately regarded with repugnance and fear, over pleasure or amusement they may have stirred in other parts of Europe (Hsia, 2004, p. 71). In England and France, for instance, the monstrous birth lost its religious association during the second half of the sixteenth century (Park and Daston, 1981, p. 41). This is illustrated by Ambroise Paré (c.1510-1590), a French Surgeon in his 1573 text, Des Monstres et Prodigies (‘On Monsters and Prodigies’), where more natural reasons were given for monstrous births (Paré, 1995, pp. 3-4). Where else, Italy used monstrosities and other prodigious signs to interpret political and military events (Soergel, 2012, p. 3). Its unique reception in Germany was the result of monstrous births being used in the polemic of the Reformation, with both Protestants and Catholics using monstrous births for their own agenda (Hsia, 2004, pp. 71, 80). The Protestants used monstrous births in their apocalyptic vision and thus stirred fear, while the Catholics regarded the monstrous births as the result of heresy and thus stirred repugnance (Hsia, 2004, p. 71). Both, however, felt a deep sense of anxiety for their redemption (Hsia, 2004, p. 72). As a result, monstrous births were appropriated into the visual culture of propaganda literature during the German Reformation (Spinks, 2009, p. 1). However, it was predominately utlised by Lutherans in polemical prints. In this way, representations of monstrous births were by no means marginal figures in the visual culture of early modern Germany.

Pamphlets of monstrous births with stories and illustrated woodcuts were used by figures such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) during the Protestant Reformation for propaganda purposes. He used these pamphlets to illustrate the monstrous corruption by the Catholic Church, where monstrous births had traditionally been used to signify presaged political upheaval and war as the result of God’s wrath on sin on earth (Knoppers and Landers, 2004, p. 9; Crawford, 2005, p. 27; Davidson, 1991, pp. 40-1). Luther and his supporters launched a massive propaganda campaign during the 1520s, after his ex-communication from the Catholic Church in 1521, with some including images of monstrous births (Roper, 2016, p. 171).

The monstrous birth known as the Monster of Cracow after its birthplace was born in 1547. It appeared in Jacob Rüeff’s (1500-1558) De conceptu et generatione hominis, (‘On the Conception and Generation of Man’) (1554), a midwives handbook by the German surgeon with woodcuts by Jos Murer. A follower of Martin Luther, he moved to Zurich where his publication became required reading for midwives. A second edition was created and reprinted in Frankfurt in 1580 with more sophisticated woodcuts by Jost Amman (Dunn, 2001, p. 222). In both editions, on the chest of the monstrous birth are the heads of a sheep and a wolf facing each other. In this way, this motif recalls the passage in Matthew 7.15-16 (NIV): ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ The dog heads on his elbows and knees and eyes on his body is in the same way the Devil was frequently portrayed during this period, thus a negative meaning was clearly intended. It was also depicted nude in order to show its physical deformity for the same reason that demons were often depicted nude, revealing their hybrid and animalistic physiques (Strickland, 2003, p. 64; Hassig, 1999, pp. 32-3). Its long-hooked tail, fiery eyes and long-hooked nose further gave the monstrous birth a demonic appearance (Strickland, 2003, pp. 77-8).

Jost Amman, ‘Monster of Cracow’ in Jacob Rüeff, De conceptu et generatione hominis, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend, 1580, (originally published in 1554),
Staats und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg.

A copy of the print appeared in Conrad Lycosthenes’ (Conrad Wolffhart 1518-61) Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon (‘Chronicle of Prodigies and Portents’) (1557) published in 1557 in Basel, which became a centre for Protestant scholarship and printing (Bates, 2005, p. 68). The work was condemned by the Catholic Council of Trent, as it was also a critique of the Church and papacy by its Protestant author (Bates, 2005, p. 68). Regardless of its criticism, the German edition of this text was extremely popular. The text is a compilation of all manner of monstrous creatures and natural wonders from antiquity until the sixteenth century with over 1,500 woodcuts. It included monstrous births, earthquakes, meteorites, and monstrous races.

Lycosthenes described the parents as ‘honourable, brave, honest’. Instead of the blame falling upon the individual parents, it was used as a collective sign of the degeneracy of society and a reminder that the last judgment was near. It was said to have died four hours after it was born and warned of the coming of Christ, emphasising its role as a portent. The description was directly followed by several disasters including a swarm destroying pastures, expansion of the Turks, and wars and death within Europe. This image of the monstrous birth also featured on the front-piece to Lycosthenes’ wonder book with images of monstrous births, earthquakes, comets and war in frames surrounding an image of Christ in a centre circle. Together, the collection of prints show that these events were divine signs that the Last Judgement was near.

Catholic Reformation
The anti-Protestant broadsheet, Ecclesia Militans (‘Militant Church’) (1569) adopted the iconography of Protestant polemic to reclaim it for Catholicism and to associate Martin Luther and his followers with the work of the Devil and the harbingers of the apocalypse. Amongst a parade are well-known monstrous births born in the Lutheran territories who had primarily been drawn from Konrad Lykosthene and Job Fincel’s wonder books. Monstrous births were frequently used by Protestant polemicists to illustrate the monstrous corruption of the Catholic Church leading their faithful to damnation. As this print illustrates, Catholics used their polemic against them by re-interpreting the monstrous births as signs of heresy. The print gives the impression that Protestants are on the side of repugnant monstrosities. Outside the Church are two large sows who represent Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora (1499-1552). Luther depicted as a sow was intended to represent a monstrous birth born in Halle, Saxony in 1536, that was supposedly born with the face of Luther (Spinks, 2009, p. 114). As they are at the door of the Church it signifies that they will desecrate it.

Anonymous Artist, Ecclesia Militans (‘Militant Church’), 1569, Ingolstadt, published by Alexander Weissenhorn, text by Johann Nas, (German text, Latin Title) Woodcut,
61.3 x 35.5 cm (sheet), 20 x 32 cm (image),
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Social Reform
While tales and images of monstrous births were originally used to call for institutional reform, particularly by the Catholic Church, they were also increasingly used for social reform. Pastors would promote abnormal births to demonstrate the corrupting nature of sin and the power of God over Creation in their sermons (Soergel, 2000, p. 290; Spinks, 2009, p. 6). Some would even place the monstrous birth on display as a warning (Hsia, 2004, p. 89). Moral reform particularly referred to women (Crawford, 2005, p. vii). It would have commonly been understood in Christian thought that birth was a reminder of Eve’s responsibility for Original Sin. As stated in Genesis 3.16 (New International Version): ‘To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ Therefore, the pain of childbirth for women was punishment and responsibility held for the first woman’s Original Sin. Monstrous births not only referred to Original Sin, but were also the result of the immediate sin it was conceived in. This further illustrated God’s hand in human affairs by allowing the monster to be born as a portent.

An example was illustrated in the aforementioned ‘Memorable and Recondite Readings.’ A print of a half-human, half-wolf hybrid with a human head and torso and with hairy canine legs and tail was illustrated. The image accompanies a story of a woman in the year 1452, who was allegedly impregnated by a dog that resulted in the hybrid who was sent to the Pope to be exonerated for the sins of the mother (Holländer, 1921, pp. 308-9). The text is followed by a description of a meteorite the following year, emphasising the role of the monstrous birth as a portent.

Unknown Artist, ‘Dog Boy’ illustrated in Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium and reconditarum, Lauingen: Leonhardus Rheinmichel, 1600, fol. 911r,
Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon.

The immediate sin of a monstrous birth could also be the result of external forces, but also the internal emotions, beliefs, and desires of the woman leading to physically imprint their deformation on the unborn child (Crawford, 2005, pp. 18-19). The Italian natural philosopher, John Baptista Porta provided a literary example of this phenomenon in his publication, Natural Magic, written in 1558. The example retold a story of a woman who birthed a child with hair covering its entire body. Upon searching for an explanation, they found the hairy image of John the Baptist in her chamber. This example highlights that the greatest burden on the resulting monstrous birth lay upon the individual woman and not the man who impregnated her. Martin Luther similarly believed that the emotional state of a woman could be imprinted on her unborn baby. He argued that pregnant women should be protected from their own overactive imagination (Spinks, 2009, pp. 59-60).


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